Over the last week, we have seen a significant divergence between the regimes in the EU and Britain surrounding the use of antibiotics in farm animals.
While the implementation of some labelling and promotional regulations has been postponed until June, the actual regulations surrounding the administration of antibiotics to farm animals has changed in Europe.
As of the end of January, all forms of routine antibiotic use for farm animals have been banned – these include a ban on preventative group treatments.
Interestingly, the EU regulations are now significantly more stringent than the UK’s, but under the Brexit withdrawal trade deal, the UK is entitled to freely export its beef, lamb and pigmeat to Europe.
In all three cases, there are significant European specialist markets for the British products – this is especially true in the case of lamb.
Already the Soil Association in the UK is calling for a similar regime in Britain to the one that now exists in Europe
The core question has to be asked – should the free movement of British animal products to the EU now be suspended until British farm antibiotic use regulations matches the new EU legal framework?
Already the Soil Association in the UK is calling for a similar regime in Britain to the one that now exists in Europe, but it drew attention to another inconvenient truth – the capacity for imports of animal products produced to much lower standards to be imported freely into Britain, and so, allow British products for sale to Europe. This is a new Brexit anomaly and it won’t be the last.
While animal antibiotic use fell in the UK under the voluntary scheme, UK farmers will inevitably face increased competition from countries with lower standards and EU producers will face competition from displaced UK product.
In the case of lamb, the UK exports to the rest of the EU, mainly France, as much as it imports from New Zealand – about 80,000t
Con Lucey, the former IFA chief economist, in an interesting paper for the Institute of International and European Affairs, puts UK beef exports to the EU at 100,000t, with no limits on the amount of beef that Australia and New Zealand can export to the UK, as the duties and tariffs continuously reduce over the 15 year transition period.
In the case of lamb, the UK exports to the rest of the EU, mainly France, as much as it imports from New Zealand – about 80,000t.
On the specific question of standards, Lucey is quite clear that the UK is prepared to accept lower health, food safety and animal welfare standards than currently apply to UK domestic production.
This again raises the question of lower production standards on UK imports freeing up domestic UK production for sale to the EU, but these in turn are below developing EU standards, which have implications for the continuing free movement of UK-produced animal products to the EU, as well as implications for the Northern Ireland Protocol.