It was nice to see that Jamie Oliver has joined the Mail on Sunday’s campaign to protect British food standards from ‘inferior foreign imports’ – it is just a pity that ship sailed many years ago. The United States is not the only country to have massive indoor factory farms, the EU has them too and so does the UK. The factory farm pictured below is in Herefordshire.
Signing a petition to block imported factory farmed meat will not improve standards at Britain’s own factory farms however signing a trade deal with the US could give Britain’s field based farms another valuable market for their high standard products.
How high are the UK farming standards?
While the politicians and celebrities supporting this campaign are well meaning in wanting imported meat to equal British standards, their first concern should be that Britain’s ‘world class’ standards are not very high. The UK has its own mega farms, the largest British mega poultry factory-farm houses 1.7 million birds, the largest British pig factory-farm holds about 23,000 pigs, while the largest British cattle factory-farm houses about 3,000 animals.
So when the Mail on Sunday complains that some chicken farms in the US have more than one million animals, we realise that this journalist hasn’t done their homework the UK has bigger farms than that. Certainly the photo editor hadn’t done their homework as they illustrated the article with the photo below, where the apparently adult US chickens are able to stand, have space between them so we can see the straw flooring and have raised perches so at least some of the birds are still able to fly. Yes, the US birds are still completely indoors like their British cousins but their housing is relatively luxurious compared to the British factory farm shown in the photo above. By the time the British chickens are fully grown they won’t have much space but following the UK’s Red Tractor regulations, the birds will never be more than 4 meters from a feed trough – possibly as far as they will be able to walk. UK politicians may claim that they are going to force the US to meet ‘UK farm standards’ but comparing these two photographs – I would suggest that may be a downwards step for US chicken farmers.
Some facts about UK and EU factory farms
The idea that a trade deal with the US will flood the UK with cheap ‘inferior’ meat just shows how little the people involved in this petition know about how their food is presently produced in both the UK’s and the EU’s own factory farms.
There are 2500 broiler farms in the UK producing 875 million chickens each year, 90% of which will be raised to the UK’s minimum standard, UK Red Tractor: 25kg of birds per square meter; no maximum number of birds in a shed; no time outdoors, or the slightly higher RSPCA assured standard: 19 birds per square meter; a maximum of 30,000 birds in a building; and one 1.5m hay bale per thousand birds. In both cases the chickens are bred to grow quickly so this overcrowding won’t last long – they can be slaughtered after six weeks.
But factory farms in the UK are not just for chickens. Only 40% of UK pigs meet the criteria to be called free range, while the RSPCA estimates that only 3% of UK pigs will live their entire life outdoors. Outdoor Bred pigs in the UK only get to spend four weeks outdoors before being moved into a feedlot. While the slightly higher welfare Outdoor Reared pigs get to spend 10 weeks outside before being moved into a feedlot. The UK’s so called world class standards are more concerned with tail docking and castration than with outdoor space for the animal’s entire life.
But the UK is not alone in this. The EU, presently the UK’s biggest supplier of agricultural products, has factory farms too. The EU euphemistically calls them ‘zero hectare’ farms and believes that ‘farms raising Granivores (pigs and poultry) do not necessarily need agricultural land.’ There were 214,000 zero hectare farms in the EU in 2016, producing nearly three-quarters of European meat and dairy products. The UK imports roughly 40% of its pork from the EU; but unlike in the UK, there are no EU regulations for free-range pork. The UK’s biggest EU supplier is Denmark, supplying 30% of the 450 thousand tons of pork the UK imports each year. Are we really supposed to believe that pigs have a better life in tiny Denmark than they do in the vast states of Oklahoma or Texas?
Factory farming has lowered the cost of protein for millions of consumers
However, If UK consumers are happy to eat intensively farmed chicken, pork or beef, then that is their prerogative. While I am a big supporter of high welfare farming – I am also aware that organic chicken costs roughly four times as much as the cheapest UK factory farmed chicken and twice as much as mid-welfare chicken.
Similarly, UK organic beef retails for approximately three times the per kilo amount for UK feedlot beef and 70% more than beef from UK or Irish “Trusted farms” – a retailing name that has no legal significance or welfare obligations. Organic pork, where it is available, retails for twice the per kilo price of the minimum UK standard, but even UK outdoor reared pork, a mid-welfare UK standard, sells for more than double the equivalent cut from an EU feedlot with no welfare information.
These price differentials reflect the difference in production costs and for many UK households, feedlot meat will have dramatically lowered their weekly food bills. There is presently a campaign to extend free school meals during the school holidays because there are parents who cannot afford to feed her children without this assistance. How can UK politicians seriously consider blocking cheaper imported food if there is still this level of food poverty in the UK?
We should also question why extremely well paid journalists insist that there is a problem with chicken that has been cleaned to remove pathogens. This is simply promoting fear in the section of the UK population who could most benefit from cheaper imported food. Americans eat more than twice the amount of chicken per capita as Britons – surely all Americans would be dead by now if there were really a problem with this process. As chlorine sprays kill viruses, maybe the whole world would not be in lockdown if the Chinese cleaned their meats with chlorine washes as well.
If people really want higher welfare meat, why do so few people buy it?
The petitioners can hardly claim that the UK population are clamouring for better animal welfare when according to DEFRA: organically reared poultry in the UK in 2018 amounted to only 1.8% of the total UK poultry population; organically reared pigs were less than 0.5% of the 10.5 million UK pig population; and organically reared cattle were only 3% of the 10 million UK cattle population. If the percentage were the reverse – if 97% of British farm animals were grass fed organic or even 51% – then maybe the petitioners would have a case for protecting British field based farmers. But they aren’t, UK consumers have already voted with their wallets.
Although over 900,000 people have signed the Mail on Sunday’s petition really want to improve British animal welfare standards maybe they should start by buying the higher welfare products available in most UK supermarkets. Blocking a US trade deal would only be protecting UK factory farmers from possibly cheaper US factory farmers.
However it is unlikely that there will be an influx of US factory farmed chicken into the UK, as US chicken farmers have exactly the same problem as their UK counterparts – their customers predominately want to eat white breast meat. As in the UK, the US’s cheap chicken is the brown meat that must be heavily discounted to sell. In the UK, deboned chicken thigh meat costs roughly 60% of breast meat of the same welfare standards and incredibly the per kilo price of a whole chicken is about 40% of the price of breast meat of the same welfare standard.
Strict Labelling and changes in consumer behaviour is the only path to higher animal welfare
If Jamie Oliver, or any other celebrity chef, really wants to help out the UK’s chicken farmers, then they should use their culinary skills to make brown chicken meat fashionable again. It is absurd that UK chicken farmers must resort to stuffing millions of birds into a shed simply because the UK population won’t eat 50% of the meat on a chicken.
If politicians really want to improve animal welfare, then they should make sure that consumers know how all meat sold in the UK has been produced, regardless of whether it is from imported or domestic production. Labels should state not just the good: free range; grass-fed; organic, but also the normal – intensively farmed, indoor feedlot raised.
The product information on the major supermarket websites, shows that they have all developed euphemisms to distract from the reality of factory farmed products. Tesco, the UK largest supermarket chain with 27% of the UK market, labels its cheapest chicken ‘Willow Farm’ – even though their website explains that it is produced to the UK’s minimum standard. While its cheapest pork brand is called ‘Woodside Farm’ – a product of the EU with no animal welfare information on the website but at half the price of their, UK Outdoor Reared equivalent product, we can guess that ‘Woodside Farm’ is probably an EU ‘zero hectare’ factory farm. Why do we let supermarkets invent company names that conjure images of grassy fields when the animals they produce have never left their massive indoor feedlots?
The benefits of a US UK trade agreement
On a positive note: Tesco only sells one standard of lamb – grass fed from Northern Ireland farms. Which brings us back to trade – the UK can produce lamb efficiently without resorting to factory farming and this is something that the UK could export to the US in the event of a trade deal being signed between the two countries.
Trade is rarely a one way process. Most countries see trading into the US market as a potential gold mine rather than fearing competition in their home market. Many UK exporters such as Burberry, Mackintosh, Diageo, Chivas Brothers, McLaren, Aston Martin, Range Rover and JCB: may all face competition from a US trade deal – but they are not demanding protection from US “inferior” products. If their US competitors are really producing to a lower standard, then that will make it easier to sell into the massive US market, with the added advantage of their products now being tariff and trade barrier free.
Many British field based farmers may discover that some Americans prefer to eat grass fed, Hereford beef, Welsh lamb or Northern Irish lamb. The UK could even export grouse, partridge, pheasant or wild Scottish venison. If UK family farmers want to survive, they need to produce a better product that people are prepared to pay for and make sure they have a recognised brand.
Provided food is safe to eat, if it can be imported at lower prices from other parts of the world – it should be. That is the point of global trade. The UK population should be allowed to eat less expensive, imported food if they want to. Why would anyone want to prevent them from doing so by restricting imports? Especially if by restricting imports, they also prevent an entire trade deal that would benefit all UK consumers, UK companies and even UK field based farmers.