Battery Hen Farm (c) Compassion in World Farming

Source: Compassion in World Farming 

The UK government had ignored calls to give eggs Sensitive Product Status in the trade deal, which would maintain tariffs on imports of eggs produced to lower standards

The British Egg Industry Council, Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA have voiced fresh concerns over the impact the new trans-Pacific trade deal could have on UK food standards.

The trio yesterday said the government had “ignored” industry warnings that the recently agreed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would allow the import of eggs from countries using conventional battery cage systems made illegal in the UK in 2012.

The UK egg sector spent more than £400m to transition to an enriched cage system following the ban, while most major retailers have now made commitments to move out of caged hen housing systems altogether by the middle of the decade.

Government ministers were slammed by the group for ignoring the sector’s warnings by not giving eggs and egg products Sensitive Product Status in the trade deal – which retains import tariffs on products that do not meet the UK’s standards – as it urged ministers to reconsider their decision before the CPTPP is due to be signed on 16 July.

Failing to give the sector this status would see import tariffs from the CPTPP’s 11 member states phased out over a 10-year period, they added, potentially opening the UK market up to eggs produced to significantly lower welfare standards than in the UK.

The danger to British consumers was that egg products could be imported from countries like Mexico, which almost exclusively relies on battery cages for egg production, they warned.

A fifth of eggs produced in the UK are used for egg products. “If the UK egg processing market was taken by third countries, then British egg processors would cease business and simply become traders,” the three bodies added.

The result would be no outlet for the 8%-10% of a hen’s production which is Class B (plus Class A eggs sold to processors), immediately requiring disposal at a cost to the egg producer.

Read more: Joining the CPTPP is a gateway to lower food standards

This would affect all egg producers (including those who have invested in free-range). And if such a situation were to play out, producers would need to raise prices to consumers to remain in business. This would result in consumers paying more for eggs, the opposite of what the government was seeking to achieve through free trade agreements.

“Such imports would undercut British egg producers who operate to significantly higher standards of animal welfare and world-leading food safety standards under the British Lion Code of Practice,” they said.

“It is almost unbelievable the government would let consumers down like this,” added BEIC CEO Mark Williams.

“To rubber stamp a deal which effectively sanctions the importation of eggs from conventional (battery) caged systems which are outlawed here is not only counter-intuitive, but it also completely undermines the countrywide standards that are adhered to by the UK egg industry.”

This particularly affected the egg products sector, he pointed out, which could see the importation of low welfare eggs “whilst UK egg farmers rightly continue to invest in ensuring higher welfare standards for their birds”.

And without adequate tariffs to only allow imported eggs produced to UK standards, “the doors will be wide open for powdered and liquid eggs from countries with lower or no animal welfare standards”, said Dr Nick Palmer, head of Compassion in World Farming UK.

“This is not what UK consumers expect of our government, which promotes high standards of hen welfare, environmental protection and food safety,” he added.

His comments were echoed by David Bowles, RSPCA head of public affairs, who said agreeing the deal in its current form meant the government was firing a starting gun “on a race to the bottom for our animal welfare standards”.

Denials CPTPP is ‘nail in coffin’ for animal welfare

The group’s intervention follows an earlier warning in April by the RSPCA that the CPTPP was a “nail in the coffin for animal welfare standards” due to the prevalence of production standards illegal in the UK among its member states. Key examples included battery cages, in addition to sow stalls.

But in response, a Department for Business & Trade spokesman said the RSPCA’s claims were untrue.

“The UK has not lowered our food, animal welfare or environmental standards in order to accede to CPTPP, and there is absolutely nothing in the agreement which would require us to lower these standards,” he said.

“Without exception, all imports into the UK must comply with our existing import requirements.”

Criticism of the impact of the CPTPP follows similar concerns over the government’s Liz Truss-negotiated post-Brexit trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, which were described last November by former environment secretary George Eustice as poor deals for the UK.

“The truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return,” Eustice said in a Commons speech.