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Farm antibiotic use raises concerns for post-Brexit trade deals

What’s happening? Key countries the UK is looking to make post-Brexit deals with are all permitting the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals, according to an Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics report. The authors highlighted the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all routinely allow antibiotics to make livestock grow faster. Farmers are also using them much more than in the UK, for example total farm antibiotic use in the US and Canada is about five times higher. This is raising concerns that future trade deals will damage public health in the UK and lead to imported meat undercutting British farmers.

Why does this matter? As we highlighted last week, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a serious concern across the world. Allowing more antibiotics to enter the food chain than necessary does nothing but exacerbate the issue.

The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics notes in its report that the UK currently imports most of its meat products from the EU, where there are strict rules about antibiotic use in farming. In early 2022, the bloc will toughen these regulations, prohibiting the use of prophylactic antibiotics in animals and insisting any imported meat meets EU standards. The UK government, however, appears to be reluctant to implement the same measures post-Brexit.

The UK has insisted it will maintain current EU standards, including a block on imports of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef when hammering out new trade deals. Despite this, negotiations could push ministers into a corner and it’s been reported they have been looking at ways to change domestic laws to allow such products to be imported if challenged by potential trading partners.

Should trade deals force the relaxing of regulations, the UK could see an influx of cheaply produced meat. Not only will this be detrimental to public health, it would also put pressure on British farmers to lower their standards to compete. It could also scupper plans to further reduce antibiotic use in farming, which have been successful in recent years.

There may, however, be some respite for English farmers should plans to receive grants for improving animal welfare under incoming changes to farming policy come to fruition.

Lateral thought from Curation – If such products end up on the UK’s supermarket shelves, who will buy them? Research has shown that consumers positively value EU food safety standards and UK-produced meat.

If British farmers want to maintain their high standards, it could mean the price of their products go up, leaving those with low incomes no alternative but to purchase cheap, potentially unhealthy imports or to consider changing their diet. It’s also perhaps worth noting how calls – including from the UK’s medical community – are growing for taxes on meat products, which would further increase their price.

Nicola Watts

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