The Government is breaking its manifesto promise about protecting animal welfare
Yesterday the UK agreed a historic free-trade deal with Australia, and while much has been written about how the move will affect farmers, less has been considered about how this will affect animal rights.
The RSPCA released a statement yesterday warning that the deal will lead to lower welfare imports of animal products that have been reared in ways that are currently illegal here; for example, 40% of beef produced in Australia has been made using hormones, a practice not allowed in the UK.
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Indeed, Australia has a pretty poor record when it comes to animal welfare standards; the Chief Executive of RSPCA Australia called them “basic at best.” In Australia, CCTV is not compulsory in slaughterhouses; hot branding is permitted; beef cattle can be transported for up to 48 hours without food or water in intense heat; and they also allow chlorinated chicken. Battery cages for laying hens and sow stalls (tiny cages used to prevent pregnant pigs from moving) are also both legal, as well as the practice of mulesing (cutting off parts of the sheep’s buttocks and tail with no pain relief.)
The government is breaking a promise to the UK public: in its manifesto it vowed to maintain animal welfare standards and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove explicitly said that Brexit would “not diminish animal protection in any way, shape or form.” While it may be easy to claim that it is ultimately down to consumer choice, this is obviously complicated by cost (such processes inevitably lead to cheaper prices, which will undercut UK farmers), and a lack of knowledge around the issue.
It is very hard for people to make informed decisions about what food they buy. Firstly, many consumers disassociate meat from its animal origins, either wilfully (for example, squeamishness) or ignorance (lack of education). Despite Brits consuming 61kg of animal protein per person per year, nearly 75% of people do not know where rump steak comes from on a cow, 65% of people have never seen a butcher at work, and 22% of the public are unaware that bacon comes from a pig. Perhaps it is unsurprising that we know so little about meat preparation given that one in six 16-20 year olds and one in eight 21-34 year olds eat fast food at least twice a day.
The second reason we may not realise that we are complicit in animal cruelty is that packaging standards are also woefully inadequate. Food labels must include information like ingredients, use-by-dates and storage conditions, but apart from country of origin, they are not legally required to disclose any other details about manufacturing processes. Labels are also often deliberately misleading — free range, for example, does not necessarily mean that the chickens were free to range outdoors.
If the government wants to honour its commitments, then it must either hold Australian imports to our standards or update its packaging policies so that people are more aware of the barbaric conditions these animals are put through.
I remember a conversation I had with a class once where I asked them what they thought future generations would judge us most harshly for. The most popular answer was our slowness to act on climate change, and the second was our treatment of animals. They may well be your typical green Gen Z-ers, but they may also well be right; let’s just hope that this ‘historic’ trade deal isn’t remembered for all the wrong reasons.