Measured by import value, the UK market for food is the third largest in the world. Everyone seeks access to it, including the US. I believe in open markets and want us to have an independent trade policy. However, if the Americans want to be granted privileged access to the UK market, they will have to learn to abide by British law and British standards.
In the UK, we have built one of the most sophisticated and discerning markets for food in the world. Consumers have become more informed and show more interest in the provenance of their food and how it is produced. The British retail sector has contributed to building a strong brand around provenance and standards. Regulators have also made sure that we strive for the highest standards of animal welfare and food safety in the world.
However, agriculture in the US remains backward in many respects. It retains a position of resisting more information on labels to limit consumer knowledge and engagement. Its livestock sectors often suffer from poor husbandry leading to the prevalence of disease and a greater reliance on antibiotics. Whereas the UK looks to manage disease and contamination risk throughout the supply chain, the US is more inclined to simply treat contamination of its meat at the end with a chlorine or similar wash.
However, the greatest difference between the British and US farming systems is their attitudes to animal welfare. The UK has legally recognised the sentience of farm animals since 1875 and since then has introduced various acts in 1911 and 1933 to improve animal welfare culminating in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. Put simply, we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world.
In the US, legislation on animal welfare is woefully deficient. There are some regulations governing slaughterhouses but they are not as comprehensive, and there is a general resistance to even acknowledge the existence of sentience in farm animals which is quite extraordinary.
US consumers have started to drive a change. There has been a growing demand for “natural” beef that has not been treated with hormones. There has also been a growing organic sector. The most important change has been delivered by emerging policies from large companies such as McDonald’s. Steve Easterbrook, a British citizen and the former head of McDonald’s in the UK has developed a suite of policies to promote higher animal welfare on farms supplying McDonald’s. He has since become the global CEO of McDonald’s based in the US and has taken British values of compassion with him helping to drive improvement in welfare on some US farms.
A modern trade deal is not simply about commerce, it is also about values. One option might be to suggest that the US introduce a similar piece of legislation at federal level to drive the modernisation of its own laws. We could even send British advisers to Washington to help them do it as part of our trade negotiations.
The international trade secretary understandably wants to talk about opportunities for new industries such as services or digital but, in the court of public opinion, if the choice is between the commercial interests of banks or the welfare of chickens, the chickens will win every time. The sound of clucking chickens will never be far from the negotiating table, tugging at our consciences so we might as well get used to it. We should use the power of the UK to project British values of kindness and compassion in any future trade deals.