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Why keep EU farming standards when they are falling?

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THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION recently announced that the EU will be allowing farmers to feed farm animals food known as Processed Animal Protein (PAP) made from insects and other animals. So far this only involves granivores – previously known as omnivores before the EU encouraged ‘farmers’ to keep hundreds of thousands of chickens and pigs in zero-hectare farms, fed exclusively grains. According to the Guardianthe EU’s motivation is purely financial. Animal protein is cheaper than plant-based protein, and crucially is already being used in other countries that are apparently undercutting EU and UK producers.

When questioned in the House of Lords the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Benyon, made some surprising admissions.

Most notably, the UK’s/EU’s supposedly “world class standards” for food safety (the ones that prevent importation of chicken meat washed in chlorinated water, and beef from cattle being drip-fed bovine hormones) already allow meat from animals fed on processed animal protein to be imported.

Apart from anything else, this is revelatory in terms of the EU’s efforts to stop British-produced meat being sold in Northern Ireland by claiming our actions could somehow contaminate the EU’s Single Market because it does not meet EU standards.

So, how much of this ‘low standard’ meat is being imported and where is it coming from?

According to TradeMap, the UK’s five-year average chicken imports were 423,000 tonnes – but only 4 per cent of it comes from non-EU countries. Such import amounts are insignificant: the UK produced 1.9 million tonnes of chicken in 2019 according to DEFRA, and like the 96 per cent of imports that came from the EU, would have been bred without the use of PAP. So why would the UK change its regulations for fear of competition from imported chicken, equal to less than 1 per cent of our domestic production?

Similarly, with pork, over the last 5 years the UK has imported on average only 827 tonnes of pork from non-EU countries, out of average total imports of just under 400,000 tonnes. According to Trade Map most of the 827 tonnes came from the US with occasional smatterings of pork from Australia, Chile and South Africa. UK domestic pork production was 922,000 tonnes in 2019, so non-EU imports that may have been fed animal protein, were less than 0.1 per cent of UK production.

These imported amounts are not large enough to put domestic producers under any kind of competitive pressure. And yet somehow, the Minister for Rural Affairs believes that the UK has no choice but to follow the EU’s lead and also allow our pigs and chickens to be fed animal-protein based food. However, the largest determinant of trade competition is the relative currency values between the importing and exporting country. There are currently about 20 South African Rand and over 1,000 Chilean Pesos to the Pound – lowering UK feed costs will not make up for this difference.

There is more to this proposal than simply the need to lower animal feed costs, so let’s go back a bit.

Some History  

After the BSE crisis in the 1990s, when eating beef infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is believed to have caused 177 deaths in the UK from a human disease called Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob-Disease (vCJD) in the UK, reintroducing the feeding of dead animals to live farm animals is a shocking idea. There are still vCJD victims whose brains are slowly degenerating, and the Government has set up the vCJD Trust to help them. BSE caused a progressive neurological disorder in cattle and is believed to have originated from feeding cattle a protein-based feed made from the rendered meat, bones, and nervous system of scrapie-infected sheep. In total there were 184,500 cases of BSE, across more than 35,000 cattle herds in the UK.

The animal-based protein feed was euphemistically known as Meat and Bone Meal or MBM, a suspiciously similar name to Processed Animal Protein or PAP feed. It is interesting that animal feed producers never want to call their product what it is. (Render can include dead farm animals, together with roadkill, abattoir waste, and even euthanised pets to produce fats for commercial use and protein for animal feed – including pet food. This process is not restricted to the UK, and is used internationally.

The UK was not the only country effected by BSE, but it had by far the most reported cases. It is believed that as the UK has a proportionally larger sheep herd than other EU countries, dead sheep suffering from scrapie made up a greater proportion of the rendered protein used in animal feed in the UK. Certainly, many of the BSE cases found in the EU were traced back to animal feed from the UK.

Although the Government was quick to ban UK consumers from eating meat on the bone or offal, and they banned cattle and sheep feed containing ruminant Meat and Bone Meal in July 1988, it did not become illegal to feed ruminants any form of mammalian protein until November 1994 and the export of MBM feed was not banned until March 1996.

As a consequence of BSE, over 4.4 million UK cattle were culled, and many independent UK butcher shops and burger restaurants were closed. Even now, any UK cattle killed over 30 months old must have their spine removed by the abattoir and sent for analysis for any trace of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE).

The crisis also destroyed the UK’s beef export industry. The EU only lifted the ban on UK beef cattle completely, including live cattle exports to other EU member states, in May 2006, while Japan and the US only lifted their ban on UK beef imports in 2019 and 2020, respectively. It is also currently illegal to feed swill to pigs in the UK as this often-caused outbreaks of swine fever. An outbreak of this disease caused millions of pigs to be culled in China in 2019.

So, will PAP be different from MBM? 

The Commission’s proposal to allow the feeding of processed insects to chickens is not controversial. Chickens are omnivores and naturally eat insects and worms if they can catch them. Pigs are also omnivorous, but meat tends to make up less than 5 per cent of their diet if they are free to forage.

Either way, it is the quantities involved in PAP that may be a problem. The difference between a safe substance and a poison is usually only the dosage. Will the Minister for Biosecurity set a maximum proportion of processed insect-based protein that could be fed to chickens or any pig herds – or restrictions on what could be in it? Would we even be allowed to diverge from EU levels if we acquiesce to EU standards now?

On the positive side, chickens are not mammals and so there is a lower chance of any viruses jumping from pig-based PAP to the chickens that eat it, and vice versa. Also, domestically processed animal protein made from rendered waste animals will have a production carbon footprint but no additional transport footprint unlike soy-based feed.

Hopefully, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity will legislate to prohibit any diseased animals being included in the PAP render. Although testing for diseases would push up the price of rendered protein and discourage its use. Meanwhile importing insects and probably undetected insect eggs or larvae could create a new problem for Britain’s agrarian farmers if not for its chicken farmers.

Is this just a political manoeuvre? 

It seems strange that the EU, an entity that stops at little to protect its farmers from commercial competition, would even be contemplating such a change in its regulations when there is a commercial advantage, and an easy justification, for not changing them.

Is this just a way for the EU to demonstrate its power over the UK? Forcing Northern Ireland to adopt these new feed rules would do far more damage to UK sovereignty and the integrity of the UK than simply setting the PAP among the chickens.

The UK’s National Farmers Union has been busy trying to block any new UK trade deals with non-EU countries by claiming the UK has the ‘highest food standards in the world’ and implying all non-EU countries fall short of these criteria. But how could they continue claiming this if the UK lowers its standards on animal protein feeds at the behest of the EU?

Instead, the UK should call the EU’s bluff. This is a phenomenal opportunity for the UK to differentiate its pork and poultry products from other EU producers, and a chance to block a large part of its imported competition in these markets. The UK could actually have the highest food standards in Europe, if it did not reintroduce rendered animal protein in farm animal feed.

The ability to block imports of EU pork – around 40 per cent of the pork consumed in the UK each year – if it were fed with PAP would be worth a lot more financially to UK pork producers than a small reduction in their feed costs. And unlike cattle, pig production can be upscaled very quickly as sows have litters of 8 to 12 piglets twice a year. Any struggling beef or sheep farmers could be encouraged to diversify into pig farming.

The UK has nothing to lose. If the EU diverges, then we can block its imports that no longer meet our standards. Our pork producers benefit. UK consumers will be able to enjoy delicious UK-produced pork without worrying about what rendered garbage it was fed. Who knows, the UK might even be able to export its pure pork to the EU.

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Photo of a Saddleback pig bRadek Sturgolewski from Adobe Stock

This article is an edited version of a longer article published in Briefings for Britain

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