America’s powerful dairy lobby has opened talks with the Trump administration about a future UK-US trade deal and indicated it wants to see Britain relax its standards on a key measure of milk quality as part of the price for a transatlantic accord.
Collision course Washington has already said it considers the UK and European Union milk standard to be a “trade barrier” and pressure on Britain to accept less stringent regulations could place International Trade Secretary Liam Fox on a collision course with his Cabinet colleague Michael Gove, who this week insisted that welfare rules will not be lowered as a result of Brexit.
The acceptance of controversial American food standards has become a key battleground in the Brexit debate and Mr Fox last year defended the practice of washing chicken in chlorine.
“A free trade deal has the potential danger to either dilute welfare standards her or put UK farmers into an uncompetitive position – we must avoid a race to the bottom.” Dr Peter Plate, Royal Veterinary College
He has since said he acknowledges that the British public will not accept diluted welfare norms but the leader of Britain’s farmers this week took a thinly-veiled swipe at Mr Fox, criticising those who he said wanted to use Brexit to pursue a “cheap food policy of scouring the world for low-cost food”.
Mega-farms Dairy farmers in America, where industrialised “mega-farms” housing up to 36,000 cows at a time in large barns rather than on pasture are increasingly common, have enjoyed a massive export boost in recent years due to the NAFTA free trade deal with Canada and Mexico and are gearing up to to boost exports of powdered milk and cheese to post-Brexit Britain.
An investigation by i and Unearthed, the investigative arm of campaign group Greenpeace, has revealed that the US dairy industry is targeting rules on the number of so-called “somatic” cells allowed in milk.
These white blood cells are produced by cows to fight bacterial infections and can be an indicator of conditions such as mastitis, a type of udder infection. American rules allow a somatic cell count (SCC) that is almost double the level permitted in milk in Britain and the EU – 750,000 cells/ml as opposed to 400,000 cells/ml.
Multiple academic studies have shown that milk containing 750,000 cells/ml is of significantly lower quality with low levels of butterfat, milk protein, calcium and higher levels of sodium and chloride.
This results in milk with a shorter shelf life and lower quality cheese.
The European Union has ruled that milk containing these high levels of somatic cells should be excluded from the food chain and may also be an indicator of welfare issues among dairy herds.
This has resulted in a further requirement that levels are tested at individual farms.
The American dairy industry, which last year had exports worth $5.4bn (£3.9bn) is already in discussions with the Trump administration about the shape of UK-US trade deal and confirmed to i that it has concerns about the somatic cell rules.
The US currently exports relatively little dairy produce to Britain but the amount is growing – last year it sold products, including cheese, dried milk and curd, to the UK worth £2.8m – a dramatic increase on £265,000 the previous year.
Confirming the talks, Shawna Morris, vice president for trade policy at the US Milk Producers Federation and US Dairy Export Council, said: “It’s something that we’re talking with the US administration about, yes… Looking down the road to new agreements, it’s part of our trade policy discussions and portfolio with the US administration.”
The Milk Producers Federation has previously insisted there is a “complete lack of scientific or trade justification” for the existing European and UK SCC standard.
Ms Morris said she saw rapid progress on a UK-US deal only if Britain did not stick rigidly to existing EU rules. She said: “If the UK is comfortable focusing on its goals and advancing UK views and priorities, I think there is a lot more opportunity for making progress than if the UK is simply rubber-stamping in everything the EU has in place from a regulatory standpoint… I think that would make things much more challenging.”
Campaigners are worried that such concerns are likely to gain a sympathetic hearing from a Trump administration whose top agricultural trade negotiators have previously held roles lobbying for the use of growth hormones in livestock and opposing EU restrictions in this area.
In its annual list of what it considers to be barriers to American trade, the US Trade Department accept that the SCC is “a measure of milk quality and an indicator of overall udder health”.
But it calls the EU standard “burdensome” and says it adds “unnecessary costs” to exports. The US department did not respond to requests to comment on its likely demands when it strikes a deal with Mr Fox’s Department for International Trade (DIT).
‘Race to the bottom’
A senior British veterinary expert warned that Britain’s high welfare standards made it vulnerable to demands for lowering of those standards from bigger economies.
Dr Peter Plate, a dairy specialist at the Royal Veterinary College, said: “In general, animal welfare standards in the UK are higher than in almost any other country, including the US.
So a free trade deal has the potential danger to either dilute welfare standards her or put UK farmers into an uncompetitive position – we must avoid a race to the bottom.”
The dilemma goes to the heart of the debate about the nature and scope of the post-Brexit trade deals Britain hopes to strike with ardent Brexiteers arguing for the benefits of allowing consumers unfettered access to the vast economies of scale offered by sectors such as American agriculture.
Others express concern that lower standards will undercut British producers and ultimately put them out of business, thereby increasing the UK’s reliance on food imports (which already account for 40 per cent of food eaten in Britain).
Doug Parr, policy director of Greenpeace UK said: “Some US industrial lobbies see a UK trade deal as a Trojan horse to smuggle through a whole range of controversial products that have been banned in the EU for years.
“Michael Gove promised the UK government won’t sign trade deals that undercut British farmers on animal welfare standards. For the public to believe that promise, they need more specific guarantees on both animal welfare and environmental standards, and a government that speaks with one voice.”
Farmers In comments widely interpreted as a swipe at Mr Fox, Meurig Raymond, the outgoing president of the National Farmers Union, told the organisation’s annual conference this week: “Those who advocate a cheap food policy, of scouring the world for low-cost food should bear in mind the price paid in traceability, in standards, and in the offshoring of environmental impact.”
Addressing the same conference, Environment Secretary Michael Gove had little to say about trade deals but pledged more generally to “enforce a high baseline for animal welfare standards”.
How this will be achieved in trade talks with Washington is unclear.
In December, i revealed that the British government has demanded the eventual trade negotiations will be conducted in secrecy with information on what is being discussed shared only between approved individuals and then withheld from the general public for a further four years.
Mr Fox has nonetheless pledged that the Government will commit to a wide consultation process, adding: “Consumers will want to be consulted.” A Government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the UK will maintain its own high animal welfare and environmental standards in future free trade agreements. Our dairy farmers are recognised the world over for their high-quality produce.
Dairy farming is worth £3.3bn to the UK economy and is vital to our countryside. Therefore any future deal must work for UK farmers, businesses and consumers.”
The rise of the US mega-farm America has led the way in the introduction of dairy “mega-farms” where the once bucolic image of cows grazing in pasture has been replaced by an industrial-scale model of animals kept in barns to maximise milk production.
The milking business stateside has undergone something of a transformation in the last four decades.
The number of dairy farms has fallen by almost nine tenths since 1970 and there are nearly two million fewer cows than there were in 1980 – but production has remained much the same.
40 litres per day Farmers have been able to square this circle by vastly increasing the amount of milk produced by each cow, from 5.4 litres per day in the 1940s to more than 40 litres per day today.
Welfare campaigners and some academics argue that this has been achieved at ruinous cost to the bovines themselves. The American milking cow has been selectively bred to produce much taller and heavier animals with larger udders which can be milked to the maximum in confinement units known as Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations or CAFOs.
The scale of these operations can be mind boggling – the largest in America house up to 36,000 cows at a time. Improved welfare Advocates argue they improve welfare and animal health by allowing round-the-clock monitoring by herdsmen and veterinarians, thereby reducing the use of measures such as antibiotics.
Critics complain that dairy producers have become obsessed with scales of production and should switch to smaller cows that live longer and are more fertile.
As with most American trends, the mega-farms have crossed the Atlantic. Britain now has at least 20 CAFO-style facilities with the largest housing some 3,000 cows.
By: Cahal Milmo