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Imported Beef

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all imported beef has been produced using the same high welfare and environmental standards as beef produced in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. We remain firmly committed to upholding our world-leading animal welfare standards. Welfare standards are considered in all our trade negotiations, and each new agreement will continue to be subject to robust parliamentary scrutiny. It has always been the case that some products produced to different animal welfare standards can be imported into the UK as long as they comply with our import requirements. Those import requirements include the ban on meat treated with growth- promoting hormones.

I thank the Minister for that reply but how does this commitment on not lowering standards square with, for example, the recent deal to import Mexican beef, which we know has a higher carbon footprint than the UK’s and is contributing to tropical deforestation, or the deal with Australia, where they use hormone growth promoters that would be illegal to use in the UK? Can the Minister understand why struggling beef farmers issue a hollow laugh when they hear these promises to protect standards, which are simply ignored when our Trade Ministers are desperate to thrash out a deal?

As I say, they will not be allowed to import beef that has been reared with growth-promoting hormones in it. That is absolutely clear. It is our policy, and it will remain so.

My Lords, will my noble friend be kind enough to ask his fellow Minister when I can expect an answer to the letter I wrote to him in my capacity as chairman of the Climate Change Committee, in which I pointed out that the importation of Mexican beef, with its high carbon footprint, would be in contravention of the commitment of the Government both internationally and in the Budget?

I will follow up my noble friend’s request. I am mystified by some science that gets thrown at me occasionally in this place which suggests that beef reared 12,000 miles away, transported in refrigerated trucks and ships and then distributed to retailers here can have a lower carbon footprint than beef or lamb produced on grass fields here and going just a few miles to a retailer. When I hear that, one word comes into my head. It is an unparliamentary one and begins with B.

My Lords, as the Minister outlined, the Conservative Party pledged:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare … standards”.

But the Australians said of Liz Truss’s trade deal that tariff elimination on such a scale through a free trade agreement was almost unprecedented, and it is not clear what on earth the UK negotiators extracted in reciprocal concessions. The Australians’ welfare standards are lower. They have battery cages for laying hens, still legal, as are sow pens, as is the technique of mulesing on lambs, which I will not go into because it is too distressing. These are not permitted here. Although this deal may not amount to much—Australia is very far away—it is a really dangerous precedent, so can the Government assure the House that we will not be signing any more deals that undercut our welfare standards?

I can assure the noble Baroness, who knows a lot about these matters, that animal welfare and environmental standards will be absolutely at the forefront of all future trade negotiations. I just say that these deals balance open and free trade with protections for the agricultural industry. Australia and New Zealand will remove customs duties on 100% of tariff lines for originating products in line with agreed treatments that will be set out in respective tariff schedules on the day the agreements enter into force. There are huge opportunities, particularly for the dairy sector. Imports of dairy products into Australia and New Zealand have increased by around 30%, and I hope our farmers will be able to benefit from that.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that all beef sold here has to meet the same standards, whether it is imported or domestic? Will he further confirm that no country has ever tried to export its production standards, and that if we were to insist that every bit of imported beef met our production standards—as some in this House seem to want—that would rule out a trade deal with the EU, which does not always match our standards, let alone with the rest of the world?

My noble friend is absolutely right that there are some different standards in the EU, and we have worked as members of the EU and will continue to work with the EU and other countries through the World Organisation for Animal Health and the World Trade Organization to create greater and higher standards of animal welfare that more reflect what we have here so that there is a much more even playing field in trade across the world.

My Lords, the Government appear very keen to do trade deals with Canada and Mexico, against the advice of the Climate Change Committee, which felt that such deals would compromise UK carbon targets, allowing imported meat with a higher carbon footprint than our own. Why are the Government not prepared to take measures to achieve the UK’s carbon targets? Perhaps they feel they are unimportant.

I can assure the noble Baroness that we do not. The Climate Change Committee has gone through each department. I am responsible in Defra for making sure that we satisfy the Climate Change Committee’s demands, which are extremely challenging and testing. We have a commitment to get to net zero by 2050. British farming, under the leadership of the NFU, has committed to getting to net zero by 2040, and I can tell her that, as a farmer, that is an extremely challenging thing to do, but we as a Government and the leadership of farming are working together to help farmers try to achieve that. It is a vital priority that we decarbonise, and we understand that there is prosperity in doing so.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Earlier this month, it was reported that a British supermarket had removed from sale pre-sliced beef marked as British when in fact it came from overseas. Concerns have also been raised about imported meat being labelled as British because it was processed, rather than farmed, in this country, and packaging for New Zealand lamb is giving undue prominence to the union jack element of its country’s flag. What steps are Defra taking to review import procedures and food labelling requirements to ensure that consumers are not misled and that our brilliant domestic producers are not put at a disadvantage?

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. This is a really important issue. When we as consumers go into a supermarket, to an extent, we park our environmental and social conscience with that brand because we trust it and want it to be doing the right thing. So if it says that a meat product is UK-produced and it has a union jack on it, we expect it to be so; we expect it to have been produced with high welfare standards and the highest environmental standards possible. If that is not the case, we as a department, as a Government and in this House should raise this seriously, both as consumers and as the Government. We meet retailers on a very regular basis and raise these issues often; I would be happy to give the noble Baroness more detail outside.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. In talking about imports from the European Union, the Minister did not say that there is a principle of equivalence. Although the standards outside this country may not be exactly the same, there is a generality of equivalence between the various standards in various member states. Does it not follow from that that the right way to approach the problem we are discussing is to have transparent, binding farm assurance schemes in the markets where our trading partners produce animals so that there is transparency both in terms of getting through the tariff barrier and other restrictions as well as for the consumer to know what they are buying?

My noble friend is absolutely right. That is of great assistance to the Government and regulators, as well as to retailers which want to make a virtue of the kinds of products they put on sale. It is also of great help to the consumer for them to make the right choices about the products that they wish to buy.

My Lords, not for the first time, I feel sorry for the Minister having to come to the House because I am convinced that, privately, his department must have approached our Trade Ministers saying that this is a bad deal. It is always possible for Defra Ministers to alienate some of their clientele but, today, they alienate farmers, environmentalists, animal welfare people and a big chunk of consumers, all at the same time, for the sake of paltry deals that will have a minimal effect on our standard of living. It seems like a humiliation to me. I hope that, if other deals come up, Defra will be stronger in making its views known.

I am always grateful for the noble Lord’s sympathy, but it is unnecessary in these circumstances. We work closely across government; there has been a slightly changed landscape in government, with big new departments appearing. What is really important is that current trade deals, and future ones as they come in, have proper parliamentary scrutiny—there is a process for that—and reflect the high environmental and animal welfare standards that we have achieved in this country, which we want to see continue.