Featured Economy & trade

Why shouldn’t the UK benefit from cheaper food?

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Written by Catherine McBride

It is a myth that cheaper importer food is produced to lower standards. It is a myth that the CPTPP will allow the UK to import low-standard food. It is even a myth that Mexico exports eggs. Catherine McBride wants to know: Who makes this stuff up?

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The Guardian has recently published an article about ‘low welfare eggs from caged hens’ being imported into the UK apparently in ‘staggering numbers’. The Guardian is also concerned that the quality of imported eggs in the UK will decline even further as the CPTPP trade deal will ‘give the green light to produce being imported from countries including Mexico.’ The Guardian also reports that the head of public affairs at the RSPCA believes that the British public would be horrified if they knew “low-welfare egg products are being sneaked into this country under the radar” and that dried or liquid eggs “don’t have to be labelled and tend to be sourced on price, not provenance”.

But is any of this true?

  1. The UK already has a trade agreement with Mexico which includes an import quota for eggs. This trade agreement was negotiated by the saintly EU in 2005. It has a quota for 300 tonnes of fertilised eggs that can be imported at half the EU’s most Favoured Nation rate of €35 per 1000 eggs. The EU also gave Mexico a tariff-free quota for 5000 tonnes of HS0408 dried or processed eggs.

Under the UK’s continuity agreement with Mexico, the UK took 14% of the EU’s quota. That is equal to 41 tonnes of fertilised eggs, 136 tonnes of dried or processed egg yolks and 409 tonnes of egg albumin. But despite this quota, the UK has never imported any fresh, fertilised, dried or powdered eggs from Mexico, at least not since 2003, according to COMTrade.

Under the CPTPP the UK will slowly remove its £25 per 100kg tariff on fresh eggs over 10 years. The UK will also remove its £119 per 100kg tariff on dried eggs over 10 years. But the largest egg exporter in the CPTPP is Canada, not Mexico, and even then, Canada doesn’t export very many eggs. But of those it does export, unsurprisingly 80% go to the US. Canada’s second-largest export market is Russia. The Guardian will be interested to know that Canada exported almost one million eggs to France last year and over 700,000 to Mexico. Mexico is a net importer of eggs, not an exporter. So, no need for the Gardianistas to worry.

  1. Is the UK in danger of importing staggering numbers of low-welfare eggs? This seems unlikely. According to Defra’s Agriculture in the UK 2022 publication, the UK produced 90% of the eggs it consumed in 2022. And we consume over 12.4 billion eggs each year. Of this, 1.5 billion eggs were imported from the EU, a far smaller amount than the 2.1 billion we imported from the EU in 2015 – before Brexit.

In case you are wondering, we import less than 12 million eggs from anywhere else in the world. According to COMTrade, these were mostly eggs for incubation from the US. Although we are now importing more eggs from China. The UK imported 138 tonnes of fresh eggs not for incubation from China in 2022, equal to about half of one per cent of the UK’s 26,529 tonnes of imported fresh eggs. As already noted, the rest of the UK’s fresh egg imports came from the EU and would have been produced according to EU regulations.

While three-quarters of the UK’s 41 thousand tonnes of imported processed egg came from the Netherlands, and a mere 35 single tonnes came from China, that is 0.08% of total UK processed egg imports.

  1. The UK’s biggest fresh egg supplier is still Ireland but last year imports from Poland increased by 200% to 8,283 tonnes, while imports from Ireland fell by 27% to 9,530 tonnes. The reason for this will be higher energy costs and feed prices, not welfare standards.

The Guardian blames the switch on cage size and welfare regulations but all EU countries have had to keep their egg-laying hens in ‘Enriched’ cages since 2012, in accordance with Council Directive 1999/74/EC. An enriched cage must ensure each bird has at least 750 cmof cage area. That is 25cm by 30cm, the size of a sheet of A4 paper.

The EU has claimed that it will ban all cages for farm animals by 2027. But even if it were to achieve this, that doesn’t mean that European hens will be grazing in an open field.

The production and collection of eggs from both caged birds and free-range birds is still very energy-intensive. Hens are kept in purpose-built sheds most of the time. With automated lighting, heating and ventilation as well as conveyor belts collecting the eggs and mechanised feed and water systems. All of this runs on electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Ireland has the most expensive industrial electricity of the 26 developed countries monitored by the IEA. Poland’s industrial electricity is about two-thirds of the cost of Ireland’s. The UK’s industrial electricity is the third most expensive, well behind Ireland but only slightly cheaper than Spain.

Feed costs have also increased. The Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed up the price of most grains used for animal feed. Ireland is a large net importer of cereal crops; Poland is a large net exporter. This will also make Polish eggs more competitive than Irish eggs.

It may make a good headline to blame cheaper imported eggs from Poland on poor animal welfare but as Poland is a member of the EU and subject to the same regulations as most of the UK’s other egg suppliers, this is more likely to be due to Poland’s cheaper electricity and home-grown chicken feed.

  1. As for the idea that these eggs are ‘sneaking into the country under the radar’ – how absurd. The UK has a free trade agreement with the EU and we have been importing eggs from the EU for a long time. Where were the RSPCA and The Guardian during the Brexit debate? Weren’t they demanding that the UK remain in the EU? In which case, egg imports from any EU country including Poland would still be completely unrestricted.
  2. Finally, the very strange idea that food shouldn’t be sourced on price. Why not? There is a cost of living crisis after all. The Guardian publishes daily headlines about this. Only yesterday it told us that UK meat consumption was at its lowest since records began, that More Britons would be partying at home this year due to rising costs, that more than one million UK children experienced destitution last year, and that the Conservatives have created a level of poverty that can only be described by a Victorian vocabulary. But they also don’t want Britons to benefit from cheaper imported food.

If trade can help lower the cost of food in the UK, surely that is a good thing. Let people decide how much they want to spend on food. The Guardianistas should stop trying to pretend that if other countries can produce food for a lower price, then they must be producing it to a lower standard.

In general, countries with cheaper farmland, lower wages, which produce their own animal feed and in the case of industrialised production, have cheaper electricity, will be able to undercut farmers who don’t benefit from these inputs.

The government could make UK farmland cheaper by getting rid of inheritance tax that has encouraged so many non-farmers to buy farmland. The government could reduce the cost of industrial electricity by dropping their green levies, their windfall taxes and encouraging oil and gas companies to produce more homegrown gas rather than importing LNG from the US or Qatar. Although the UK presently produces a lot of grains for animal feed, if we want this to continue, the government should drop its rewilding payments that are encouraging farmers to take their land out of production.

But one thing that the government is doing that will help lower the cost of food, is negotiating trade deals. If anything, I would like to see UK tariffs on food reduced more quickly.

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About the author

Catherine McBride