?Free trade will make our industry

unsustainable, says Charles Bourns,

chairman of the British Poultry Council

and the NFU poultry board.

I was asked to talk about whether imports of meat are sustainable, and the simple answer is yes.

But I would argue free trade will make our industry unsustainable because imports leave us open to several dangers.

The blind belief that our producers can survive on premium, local and niche sales alone is plain wrong. For every 100 animals processed, most will be A Grade, but there will always be some B and C Grade animals that are sold in cheaper lines - effectively subsidising the cost of the top quality produce.

In recent years, increased global trade in meat has brought us foot and mouth, swine fever, Newcastle disease and now avian influenza.

The 2006 bird flu outbreak cost the poultry industry £58m and the latest case in Suffolk lowered poultry sales by 15%. Thankfully, sales have recovered but there have been losses through no fault of producers here.

Plenty of imports come from countries that are not regulated as strictly as EU producers, and even within the EU, some countries enforce the regulations with a very light touch.

For example, the new IPPC pollution regulations have just cost the British poultry industry £4m - in Denmark or Belgium the bill was closer to £250,000.

It is about time producers outside the EU are forced to come up to our standards if they want to import into our market. This is in the hands of our consumers, processors and, of course, retailers. The supermarkets can audit and control British farms but can they truthfully do the same overseas?

So while we will always need imports, we must have better import controls, light touch from the regulators with no gold plating and retailers who really are willing to breathe oxygen into the British industry to renew confidence.

The British meat industry, and especially the poultry sector, produces what consumers demand: a local, tasty, safe and healthy product with prices to suit all pockets. If it doesn't get the support it needs, there is a danger it'll go the same way as the coal, clothing and ship building industries.

It is also up to the British industry to demonstrate to the consumer why they should buy British over produce from any other country. This is why 'The Red Tractor' needs more support.