Following the passing of the Brexit Bill through Parliament, the House of Commons in London, England, UK this week debated the future of the country’s poultry and pig industries after the country leaves the European Union (EU), focusing mainly on future access to trade and labor.
Member of Parliament (MP) for North Antrim, Ian Paisley, who tabled the debate, said that the poultry meat industry supported GBP4.6 billion (US$5.6 billion) to the UK’s gross domestic product, and provided direct or indirect employment for 84,500 people. The sector’s contribution is even higher in Northern Ireland, where poultry producer/processor, Moy Park, is based.
With Jim Shannon, MP for Strangford, Paisley stressed that the poultry industry does not benefit from support through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and called for a new, British agricultural policy, tailor-made to the needs of farms across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, said that in replacing the CAP, the government will look to promoting and incentivizing higher standards of animal welfare.
“That could involve some support for the poultry industry to enable it to invest in different approaches to animal husbandry that are better for welfare and might reduce our reliance on antibiotic use, which is another important challenge facing the sector,” he said.
Concern over access to migrant labor
With 60 percent of the industry’s workers coming from outside the UK, access to the EU labor market is a top priority for the sector, according to Paisley. He called on the government to develop a visa and immigration scheme that both stabilizes the situation and ensures future needs are met.
In reply, the Minister said he recognized this has become an important issue for the poultry industry.
“The important thing is this: just because we are leaving the European Union and ending the presumption of the free movement of people, that does not mean that we are pulling up the drawbridge and ending all immigration,” the Minister said. “In fact, it is incredibly important that we put in place a new type of partnership with the European Union that enables us to control immigration, but that, crucially, allows us to enable some people to come here and work, be that on temporary work permits—that could be for some low-skilled people—or on longer-term permits, for some of the more skilled positions.”
Paisley and the Minster agreed on the need to attract more young people to work in the food and farming sectors.
Trade issues are key for poultry sector
“Our aim for the future is to get the best possible trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world,” said the Minister. “On exit, we want the best possible terms of trade between the UK and the EU. That includes, as the Prime Minister said, a bold and ambitious free trade agreement that removes as many barriers to trade as possible. Leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to forge our own free trade deals around the world. We will work with the industry as we shape the priorities and interests for the UK agri-food sector, and explore global trade opportunities.
Eustice stressed that effective disease control will always be a priority for his department, and the need to protect the country from the animal health risks will remain a key objective for the Government.
Citing strong UK exports of chicken feet to China as an example, the Minister said there are opportunities for trade in parts of the poultry carcass for which there is no market at home or in Europe.
The UK currently imports chicken breast meat to meet demand, and exports dark meat and coproducts. If costs of production were to rise on Brexit, prices for these products could be uncompetitive on the global market.
Responding to concerns about possible future imports of poultry meat from the Americas, the Minister stated he was aware of the different standards of production in the US.
“It has lower standards of animal welfare and lower standards of food safety, and it allows approaches that are not currently allowed in the European Union, such as chlorine washes. It is important, as we contemplate any future trade deal, that we do not put our industry at an unfair disadvantage.”
National food security, feed specifics and Irish issues
Paisley called for a food and farming policy to be developed to back UK food security and increases the self-sufficiency of the poultry meat sector. Only the poultry sector could scale up quickly to meet food security demands, he said.
With the animal feed sector so critical to livestock production, he stressed that the raw materials are traded globally. The EU currently controls import tariffs on feedstuffs, but that could change after Brexit, adversely impacting the competitiveness of UK feed producers and, hence the country’s livestock farmers.
Finally, Paisley raised issues of environment and energy that specifically impact Northern Ireland. With no suitable processing facilities in the region, poultry litter and feathers are currently exported to the Republic of Ireland for processing. A frictionless border will be needed for these products for the mutual benefit of both states post-Brexit.
The UK and Irish economies are deeply integrated, particularly for food, farming and agriculture, according to the Minister. A practical solution is being sought to maintain the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system.
UK poultry sector pushes for best deal on labor, trade
British Poultry Council (BPC) Chief Executive, Richard Griffiths, has welcomed the parliamentary debate.
“We are delighted that poultry meat is being recognized as an essential sector in British food production, and that how to back British poultry farmers is being debated at the highest levels,” he said. “For the poultry meat sector, Brexit means a strong ‘British’ brand with standards and values that are reflected in the best deal possible on access to labor and on trade. Put bluntly, without these two elements safeguarded, the British poultry meat sector will not exist to feed the nation and British food security will be compromised.”
“The BPC and its members are absolutely committed to working with Government to find a solution to labor and trade issues, and striving for the best possible deal on leaving the EU. We are an important part of British food production and we will continue to be so,” he added.
Labor access is top issue for the UK pig meat sector
The UK’s National Pig Association (NPA) has stressed the fundamental importance of EU labor to sectors like pig production.
“Without EU labor there will be no British pig industry as we know it,” said NPA chief executive, Zoe Davies recently.
As for the poultry sector, NPA’s other top priorities regarding Brexit are to retain tariff-free access for pig meat exports to the EU market, and to ensure pork imports are produced to equivalent standards.