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UK Consumers Reject Hormone-treated Beef

UK Consumers Reject Hormone-treated Beef

The latest Which? Brexit tracker survey found that UK consumers strongly reject the idea of cattle being treated with growth hormones. The survey measures consumer perspectives towards leaving the European Union and reports consumer perceptions of the effect of Brexit on prices, consumer rights, safety and financial impact.

The survey found that 80% of respondents said that they were not at all comfortable with growth hormones in beef production, while 79% said that they were not comfortable with hormones being used to increase milk yields in dairy cows.

These findings show a strong indication of what the public want to see in any future trade deals –maintaining high UK food safety and animal welfare standards.  We cannot generate a race to the bottom with UK farmers and food producers trying to compete against cheap imports of lower quality.

The potential impact of hormone treated beef hasn’t been as widely covered as other threats, such as acid washes. Read our latest blog on chlorinated chicken here. Yet, the potential risk from imported beef that has been produced to a lower standard is just as critical. Read our briefing on the Top 10 Food Safety Risks from a Transatlantic Deal.

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Cattle producers use hormones because they allow animals to grow larger more quickly on less feed, thus reducing production costs. However, the practice is highly controversial and has significant public health risk and animal welfare concerns. Currently, the import of beef that has been treated with hormones into the UK (or any other EU nation) is banned under EU laws and has been banned in the EU since 1989. The 2003 EU scientific review concluded that the hormone estradiol-17β was carcinogenic and that there was insufficient data to adequately assess the health risks of five other common beef hormones. As a result, the EU amended the ban to permanently exclude estradiol-17β and provisionally banned the five other hormones.

Australia and America are both pushing to have hormone-treated beef included in any future trade deal with the UK. Both have long opposed the European Union’s position on hormone-treated beef and have long disputed the scientific analysis. To this end, the US brought a successful World Trade Organization (WTO) case against the EU in 1998. The EU initially paid a retaliatory tariff to the US to maintain the ban. In 2009, the EU moved to allow some imports of high-quality (non-hormone treated) US beef under a tariff-rate quota and the US tariff was suspended.  In 2017, the US took steps to reinstate retaliatory tariffs, which are ongoing.

Liam Fox, the UK’s international trade secretary, has argued for allowing hormone-treated beef from Australia and the US into the UK market after Brexit, saying that it would reduce meat prices for consumers. It is an unsurprising stance from a politician who has repeatedly defended the controversial practice of chlorine-washed chickens, saying “there are no health reasons why you couldn’t eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water”. 

While public pressure demanded that the UK government publically ruled out allowing the import of chlorine-washed chicken on animal welfare grounds, it has made no public comment on hormone-treated beef. Perhaps the polling in the new Which? survey will force them to make a similar commitment to refuse to accept hormone-treated beef?

Whether its hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken, it is critical that all future bilateral trade agreements maintain the highest food safety standards. We cannot generate a race to the bottom with UK farmers and food producers trying to compete against cheap imports of lower quality. This is particularly true if the UK is to become a global leader as Environment Secretary Michael Gove outlined in his January speech to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Ministers promised that UK standards on animal welfare and the environment wouldn’t be slashed post-Brexit and allowing hormone-treated beef would go entirely against that. Given the considerable influence on the direction of future trade deals that Government officials can have, we must remain vigilant to ensure that future trade deals do not allow food that has been produced to a lower safety standard into the UK market, undercutting UK farmers.

To ensure that the whole process is done in the most transparent and democratic way possible, the Soil Association helped to establish the Trade Democracy Coalition. To ensure effective public and parliamentary participation and scrutiny of trade deals, the Trade Democracy coalition is urging the Government to establish a process which:

  • Establishes broad principles for all trade policy that aligns it with human rights, workers’ rights, development objectives and environmental commitments;
  • Requires parliamentary approval of negotiating positions before starting the process of formal negotiations with a trade partner;
  • Requires participatory impact assessments, which are publicly available, to provide information on which to base decisions, including human rights, environment and international development;
  • Includes full and meaningful public consultation, including public hearings, on proposed negotiations;
  • Makes negotiating texts publicly available in a manner that allows for meaningful adjustments to be made, including halting negotiations;
  • Requires full parliamentary debate and a vote on agreements before they come into force.

We will continue to work with the Trade Democracy Coalition to advocate for greater transparency for all future trade negotiations and will keep Soil Association members apprised of any important developments.

Read more about the Coalition’s policy recommendations.

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