Economy & trade The EU Reports

EU Farmers Worry US Trade Deal Will Stop Them Bringing Home the Bacon

pig farming
Written by Catherine McBride

In yet another last ditch stand, the Remainer undead are trying to scupper a US UK trade deal by alleging that US farming standards are inferior to the UK’s, and that UK consumers are too stupid to make decisions about what food they want to buy. They have even proposed that the Government should add tariffs on agricultural imports of 60% to protect a handful of UK Free Range pig farmers even though the UK imports 40% of its pork. Theses protectionists have also failed to explain why it is fine for the UK to produce most of its own pork in feedlots and for the UK to import pork from EU feedlots but not from US feedlots.

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Last week the Financial Times became the EU pig farmers’ useful idiot by writing a story about one of the very few free range pig farmers in the UK and purporting that this is a typical British farmer who will be unable to compete with big US mass produced pork. While this blatant propaganda piece is obvious to anyone who knows even as little bit about UK farming, the FT has identified a key reason why any trade deal between the UK and the US will be difficult: so many of the UK’s twittering classes know nothing about how their food is produced yet all of them firmly believe that UK food is produced to ‘some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world’. The operative words being ‘some of’.

Some of the facts you should know about UK pig farming

  • According to DEFRA[1] only 37 thousand pigs were reared organically in the UK in 2018 out of a total pig population of just over 5 million. That is about 0.7%
  • According to the RSPCA, less than 3 % of UK pigs live their entire lives outdoor as either Organic or Free Range
  • RSPCA Assured does not meant Free Range or Organic and pork carrying this symbol can still be permanently housed indoors in feedlots – many RSPCA Assured animals will merely have a bit more space than the legal minimum required in a feedlot and some straw covering the cement floor but the label does not allow the use of farrowing crates, castration or tail docking. All common practices in the EU.
  • 37% of UK pigs are either: ‘outdoor bred’ where piglets spend 4 weeks outside, are weaned after 21 days, then are moved to a feedlot; or ‘outdoor reared’ where piglets spend 10 weeks outside before being moved to a feedlot.
  • 60% of UK pigs will live their entire lives in a feedlot. The largest pig feedlot in the UK houses 23,000 pigs so is of a similar scale to large feedlots in other countries.
  • The UK standards for the 60% of UK pigs that live their entire lives indoors in a feedlot are not that different from any other country. The only major difference is castration – only 2% of UK pigs are castrated unlike most EU, US, Canadian and Brazilian pigs.
  • According to AHDB there are 10,0000 pig farms in the UK but 1,600 UK pig farms produce 92% of UK pork, while 10 UK farms alone produce 35% of UK pork.
  • Although the use of sow stalls is banned in the UK, 74% of UK breeding sows will be kept in a ‘farrowing crate’ for up to 5 weeks after they give birth. Like sow stalls, farrowing crates prevent the mother from accidentally crushing the piglets. Both sow stalls and farrowing crates restrict the sow’s movements. Sows produce 2 to 3 litters a year, of about 10 piglets.
  • Tail docking is not permitted in the UK unless necessary – according to ADAS this was necessary for 70% of UK pigs while CIWF believes UK pig tail docking is as high as 84%.
  • The supposed UK ‘high animal welfare standards’ can boil down to keeping animals in an entirely indoor feedlot but with added straw and a slated floor – Are these the standards that protectionists want MPs to defend? Are they really proposing that the UK try to force our trading partners to comply with added straw, a slated floor or necessary tail docking?

Some of the facts about EU pig farming

  • The UK imports about 40% of its fresh pork, almost all of it comes from the EU. The UK is effectively a captured market for EU pork producers.
  • The EU only has two pork standards: feedlot or organic. There are 214,000 feedlots in the EU known as ‘zero hectare farms’ producing three quarters of all EU meat and dairy products.
  • The largest pork production company in the EU is the French company, Cooperl Arc Atlantique with 250,000 breeding sows while the second largest is the Spanish company, Vall Companys Grupo with 195,000 breeding sows. While the world’s biggest pork producer, the Chinese company, WH Group, 1.1 million breading sows, has operations in Romania and Poland.
  • Over half of UK imported pork comes from Denmark and Germany, where virtually all pigs have their tails docked and almost all are castrated. EU pork producers can also use both sow stalls and farrowing crates; technically sow stalls were banned in the EU in 2013 but not all member states are fully compliant yet. But these practices have never prevented the UK importing EU pork. Nor do consumers or campaigners complain about pork from Denmark or Germany being produced to ‘lower’ standards.

Some facts about US Pig Farming

  • Like the UK, the US has a variety of farming standards and it is estimated that a quarter of US sows are loose housed.
  • According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, there are over 55 thousand pig farms in the US but 56% of them sold fewer than 25 pigs in 2012, while 7,300 US pig farms sold an average of 24,870 pigs each. So, like the UK, the US has both artisan and mass production pig farms.
  • One of the often quoted difference between UK and US pork producers is that sow stalls can still be used in all but 9 US states but UK farmers can use Farrow Crates that are not really that different from sow stalls. Both are designed to reduce piglet mortality.
  • Although US producers can use feed additives such as Ractopamine which promotes leanness in pork meat, it is not compulsory. Ractopamine is a feed additive, it adds to the farmer’s costs and does not reflect on animal welfare.
  • Not all US farmers use Ractopamine. Both the US and Canada have ‘Ractopamine free’ labelled products and all Organic products prohibit its use. Any residue in the meat must be less than 50 parts per billion.
  • Ractopamine can also be used in Brazil, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand. Although Ractopamine is banned under EU regulations, the EU still signed trade deals with Canada, Mexico and with the Mercosur countries which includes Brazil.
  • Many UK protectionists also complain about the use of pathogen reduction treatments to protect US consumers. The washing of chicken meat with peracetic acid is done by the abattoir not the farmer, it is mandatory and has nothing to do with the chickens’ welfare while alive. US regulations require all chicken to be washed to remove pathogens with the sole exception of organic chicken.
  • The UK adds chlorine to its drinking water to reduce pathogens and both the EU and UK wash their bagged salad in water containing chlorine in order to reduce pathogens.
  • The UK has higher levels of campylobacter (90 cases per 100,000) than the EU average (66.3 cases) or the US (13.4 cases). So should the UK be washing its chicken meat in pathogen reduction treatments as well?

Competition and choice in farm products

  • The very few, completely outdoor, Free Range pig farms in the UK must already compete with UK Outdoor Reared pigs, UK Outdoor Bred pigs, the 60% of UK pigs that live in feedlots as well as imported EU feedlot pigs produced in a lower currency. However these Free Range pig farms are still in business because their customers don’t buy feedlot pork. So why would they need tariffs and trade barriers to prevent their customers from buying US feedlot pork? Their customers are unlikely to change their purchasing preferences.
  • Even some UK feedlot farmers claim that they will be unable to compete with the scale of big US agribusinesses that can have herds of over 20,000 sows. However the largest feedlot in the UK houses 23,000 pigs. So their complaint is not about animal welfare but about economies of scale.
  • The international organic movement started in America, and in 2016 over a billion dollars’ worth of organic livestock and poultry was sold in the US[2]. Maybe instead of fearing US competition the UK’s free range farmers should investigate possible US markets for their high welfare products.
  • However there are other ways that UK politicians could help UK farmers without introducing trade barriers. The paperwork presently required to comply with British animal welfare standards adds considerably to UK farmers’ costs. This should be reduced to information that is strictly necessary for public safety.
  • Proprietor farmers will look after their animals without the requirement to fill in a form – as their animals are their assets and their means of production. But the UK standards have turned UK farmers into box tickers and bureaucrats. Even the UK Red Tractor Pig Standards[3] (the UK’s lowest welfare label) has 42 pages of regulations and 55 items that must be recorded, many daily.
  • Reading the Red Tractor’s list of recordable requirements does not reflect well on UK farmers’ common sense: do UK farmers really need a regulation to make then ensure that their barns are not too hot, or need to be told to remove dead animals from a feedlot? Is this a reflection of how many of our farms are now run by employees with no vested interested in the welfare of the animals rather than the proprietor farmers that protectionist campaigners would like us to believe run the majority of UK farms?

Trade and protectionism

  • The UK Government has stated that it would not compromise on the UK’s “animal welfare and food standards”, and that regulators would ensure imports into the UK “comply with those high safety standards”.
  • The government also voted against an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that it is claimed would have legally enshrined a ‘level playing field’ on welfare standards. But the UK’s pig farmers do not have a ‘level playing field’ now – even with other UK farmers let alone with EU feedlot farmers. No private business should be protected from competition by law.
  • The government cannot force people to buy premium pork products if they don’t want to or can’t afford to.
  • The UK government has proposed a global tariff schedule that puts average protective tariffs on pork of more than 60%. However, the UK imports 40% of its fresh pork meat and up to 60% if you include persevered and processed pork. It would be insane to add such high tariffs when UK farmers are unable to meet UK consumer demand. This would only hurt UK consumers.
  • Unsurprisingly, the UK’s Department for International Trade has been lobbying to slash these proposed tariffs as part of any US trade deal.  If this is the starting bid in a trade negotiation, how will UK negotiators keep a poker face when everyone at the table knows how much the UK relies on imported pork?
  • In the US UK trade negotiations, the US has asked for “comprehensive market access” for its agricultural products and the removal of the EU’s non science based protectionist barriers to agricultural trade.
  • In this request the US negotiators have a point: The majority of UK pork is already produced in a feedlot and the difference in animal welfare between a US feedlot, a Danish feedlot or a UK feedlot is minimal.
  • In addition, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared in 2005 that pathogen reduction treatments (PRTs) used as directed, have no safety concerns. The European Commission proposed relaxing the restrictions on PRTs in 2008 but all EU member states voted against this with the exception of the UK. If the UK voted to allow PRTs in 2008, how could they claim PRTs are unsafe now?
  • Another proposal floated by UK politicians was a differential tariff that would see higher tariffs imposed on food imports with lower standards. However, who gets to decide what constitutes lower standards? Does not docking a pig’s tail count as higher welfare? Are castrated pigs lower welfare – even though the Europeans believe that uncastrated pigs have an unpleasant taste called Boar Taint? And of course, if the treatment of the animal hasn’t affected the meat – how would anyone know if a pork chop’s mother was kept in a sow stall (in the US) or a farrowing crate (in the UK)?

UK production, cheaper imported pork, expensive exports and Chinese Swine flu

  • Protectionists have claimed that ‘UK (and EU) pork is nearly TWICE as expensive as US-produced pork’ and that this is due to the difference in animal welfare.
  • But this claim only held true for the second half of 2019 when there was an outbreak of Swine Flu in China. China is the world’s largest consumer of pork and its purchases of pork in 2019 pushed up prices. Even the UK, a net importer of pork, doubled its exports to China in 2019, from 40,700 tons in 2018 to 81,400 tons and at a 40% higher average price.
  • China is the world’s largest pork producer, producing around 34m tonnes, the EU is the second largest producing 24m tonnes and the US is third largest producing only 13m tonnes.
  • Why are UK protectionists pretending that free trade with the US will undermine UK farmers when the UK has had free trade with the EU for 47 years? EU pork is generally cheaper than UK pork, only Chinese buying at the end of 2019 pushed the average EU-ex-UK price above the UK’s Standard Pork Price (SPP)[4].
  • Even though the AHDB’s 5 year, EU and UK Pork Price chart, below, shows that EU prices are generally well below the UK’s, according to DEFRA[5], UK pork production increased by 8% over the same period, from 822,000 tonnes dressed carcass weight in 2014 to 889,000 tonnes in 2018. So free trade with a cheaper producer has not wiped out UK farmers.

Trade is rarely one way

  • Trade is rarely one-way. Last year the UK exported 10,000 tons of pork to the US – and the average price per ton was a whopping $4,200. While the UK imported Danish pork for an average price of only $2,490 per ton. So rather than fearing US competition in their home market, maybe the UK’s high welfare pig farmers should be looking for potential export opportunities in the US.
  • It is also possible that increased US export opportunities will encourage more UK farmers to convert to free range and organic farming methods. A win-win for animal welfare campaigners as well as the UK’s higher welfare farmers.
  • Alternatively, the UK produces lamb efficiently, without resorting to feedlots, and produces enough to meet local demand with some left over for export. The UK could export lamb to the US and import pork by return. The point of international trade is to import products that other countries produce more efficiently and export products that your country can produce efficiently – this is not rocket science. UK Lamb for US Pork.

World Price Comparisons

  • In the European Commission’s report on pig farming in the EU[6] they produced a chart, below, of EU, US, Canadian and Brazilian pork prices. The protectionists published this chart but removed that Canadian and Brazilian prices – no doubt the fact that twenty years of Nafta has not wiped out Canada’s pig farmers would somewhat detract from their predictions of doom for the UK pig farmers if they have free trade with the US.

looking at the original European Commission chart

  • However, looking at the original European Commission chart, above, the question becomes not why US pork is so cheap but why is the UK buying EU pork when not only US pork, but also Canadian and Brazilian pork is less expensive? The answer is of course – the EU Customs Union that adds between 15% and 45% tariffs to non-EU imported pork.
  • However, the UK will finally be out of the EU’s Customs Union at the end of this year, so it is extraordinary that some UK politicians are hoping to recreate their own version of it.
  • It is also worth noting that the Commission used a weighted average price for EU pork (including the UK up until Jan 31 2020) and there are major price variations between EU countries[7]. The UK does not buy pork from a weighted average across the EU: 30% of the UK’s imported pork in 2019 came from Denmark while 98% came from only 8 EU countries (DK, DE, IR, NL, ES, BE, PO, FR).

Consumer Choice

  • UK consumers should be free to choose which products they want to eat and how much they are prepared to pay for their choice.
  • The protectionist are comparing feedlot pig farms in the US with the few organic or free range pig farms in the UK while neglecting to mention that the UK has feedlots too just as the US has Organic farms.
  • The protectionists claim that, ‘US pork production costs are about half those of the UK due to intensive rearing methods’ when what they mean is – Feedlot pork production costs are lower than Organic pork production costs in both the US and the UK. This is hardly a revelation.
  • The price differential in meat is not one of geography, between the UK and US but between product variety such as Organic, Free Range or Feedlot pork. These varieties are available in a lot of countries. But there is a substantial price variation between them. In the UK, Organic Free Range pork retails for three times as much as the same cut of Feedlot pork.
  • However if UK consumers want to spend less by purchasing imported meat, then they should be allowed to do so. In fact, they are already doing so when they buy EU feedlot pork.

Consumer action groups and the misunderstanding of farming practices

  • Although almost one million people have signed an online petition organised by the National Farmers’ Union, in support of ‘UK food standards’, very few UK consumers buy high welfare meat. According to DEFRA in 2018, only 1.8% of UK poultry was organically reared, only 0.7% of UK pork was organic, and only 3% of UK cattle were organically reared. Signing a petition won’t save UK farmers if consumers don’t buy their products.
  • The consumer group Which? has written to Liz Truss, the UK international trade secretary, warning that a US-UK Trade agreement posed a potential threat to food safety. The consumer watchdog included a survey showing that 72 per cent of the UK public did not want products such as chlorine-washed chicken. It is incredible to believe that a supposed consumer protection organisation does not understand that pathogen reduction treatments are designed to increase food safety in order to – protect consumers.
  • We should therefore be equally sceptical of the claim that 72% of the people surveyed said that they did not want chlorine washed chicken, it is highly likely that they also didn’t understand that pathogen reduction treatments are designed to protect them.
  • How many of the people surveyed would have agreed that they were happy with the high levels of campylobacter in UK chicken or agreed that they would reject a process that reduced this?
  • Or how many would have agreed that they would be happy to continue paying more for EU pork even though US pork reared to the same standard could be imported for a lower price?


If a farm cannot survive without government subsidies or protection from competition, then it is not a business it is a hobby. The UK Government should not force consumers to pay more than they have to for food in order to protect someone’s hobby. How can the UK media be extolling Raheem Sterling for admitting that he relied on free school meals as a child on Monday and then demanding that the government keep food prices high to protect hobby farmers on Wednesday? Where is the joined up thinking?

Both Free Range and Feedlot pork is available in both the UK and the US, the difference between them is not about geography but price. Consumers should be allowed to spend as much or a little as they like on meat. Just label it, price it to cover your costs, and let consumers decide.

[1] page 83

[2] 2016 Certified Organic Survey

[3] Red Tractor Assurance for Farms, Pigs Standards, Oct 2017 updated Oct 2019.





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About the author

Catherine McBride