The animal-welfare charity is warning giving the country tariff-free access to the UK would “betray the public, farmers and animals” and could set back animal welfare by decades.
And other activists say a deal would undermine the government’s overhaul of animal-welfare laws, which ministers announced with great fanfare last week as “the biggest shake-up and standards for generations”.
Boris Johnson made clear at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that he backed signing a deal with Australia, after it was revealed a “furious” row was raging in the cabinet over whether to opt for one.
Animal-welfare organisations are horrified by the prospect of a deal because Australia has much lower legal standards on animal welfare than the UK, including:
· mulesing - cutting off sheep rear ends, including skin and flesh, often without anaesthetic
· barren battery cages for hens
· chlorinated chicken
· sow stalls - extreme confinement for pregnant pigs
· growth hormone treatment for beef
· journey times of up to 48 hours without rest and live exports
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “Just days ago, the government vowed to be a global leader for animal welfare, with Defra publishing a wide-ranging and comprehensive strategy. Now the Department for International Trade is looking to sign a quick trade deal with a country still using worse systems which could undermine that pledge.
“We’d urge the prime minister not to betray the public, farmers and animals.”
It’s believed the government plans to include animal welfare language in the agreement, but activists warned that would be meaningless if the deal still allowed the import of cruelly produced goods.
Australian imports would, on the face of it, fly in the face of the Conservative election manifesto, which stated: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
And ministers including trade secretary Liz Truss and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove have repeatedly promised not to allow standards to be reduced as the government does post-Brexit deals.
But millions of Merino lambs in Australia each year are subjected to mulesing, when their rears are painfully sliced off to create scar tissue resistant to “fly strike”.
Pain relief is not mandatory in most states, and Humane Society International/UK said the UK government “should not be giving a free pass to wool that has been tainted by the cruel practice”.
In 2018, Australia exported 119 tonnes of wool to the UK, a figure predicted to spiral under a free-trade deal.
An estimated 9 million laying hens in Australia – 70 per cent of the country’s egg-laying flock - are confined to tiny barren battery cages no bigger than an A4 piece of paper. Battery cages are illegal in the UK and Europe.
The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics says Australian farmers use at least 16 times more antibiotics on poultry than the UK, and nearly three times as much on pigs.
Compassion in World Farming said beef from Australian cattle reared in intensive conditions should not be permitted.
And Claire Bass, executive director of HSI/UK said: “The government cannot claim to champion animal welfare one minute, and the next have its pen poised to sign up to encourage imports of goods that are the result of appalling animal suffering.
“If the government’s action plan for animals is to be worth the paper it’s written on, ministers from all departments have to take pride in protecting animal welfare and not treat it like an inconvenience to be bartered away.”
Mr Sherwood said any deal must include safeguards - tariff or non-tariff - to ensure only products produced to higher standards could enter the UK.
“The UK public have made clear they do not want lower welfare imports like eggs from hens reared in barren battery cages, chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef and products from sheep that have been mutilated using practices banned in the UK coming into the country,” he said.
He condemned the lack of independent scrutiny to ensure standards. “This agreement is being hurried through before the Trade and Agriculture Commission is even set up.
“Without protection built into free-trade agreements, we risk setting back animal welfare by decades and betraying British farmers.”
The government should use the agreement to encourage Australia to raise its standards, he added.
At PMQs, Mr Johnson hailed a deal as “a massive opportunity for Scotland and the whole of the UK” to export agricultural produce.
The Independent asked Downing Street how the prime minister can reconcile promises not to lower standards with signing a deal. No 10 pointed to the words of the prime minister’s official spokesman, who said: “Negotiations are ongoing on a trade deal with Australia so I’m not going to preempt the outcome of those talks.
“We want to secure an ambitious deal that benefits businesses and consumers across the UK, and of course any agreement will include protections for the agriculture industry, and won’t undercut UK farmers or compromise our high animal welfare standards.”
A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “Typically, any tariff liberalisation is staged over time, with safeguards built in. Australian meat accounts for a very low proportion of total UK imports, and is produced to high standards.”
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