Brexit poses a threat to animal welfare in the UK, a new report warns

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LONDON — Brexit risks triggering a fall in animal welfare standards as cheap imported food could force UK farmers to prioritise competitiveness over care for animals, a Lords report has warned.

The House of Lords European Union committee report into farm animal welfare, published on Tuesday, says British farmers could be pushed into “a race to the bottom for welfare standards” after Britain leaves the European Union.

The report suggests this would happen because of “farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK.”

The Lords report urges Theresa May’s government to prioritise animal welfare in all post-Brexit free trade deals: “The Government must negotiate to include provisions regarding farm animal welfare in future free trade agreements,” it says.

The report comes in the same week as a Cabinet disagreement over whether the UK should be prepared to import food which is currently banned by the EU as part of a free trade deal with the US. The country could be forced to accept chlorine-washed chickens alongside lactic acid sprayed pork and hormone-grown beef as part of its post-Brexit trade deal with the US, under plans reportedly being pushed by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.

Fox on Monday accused British journalists of being “obsessed” by the issue of food standards but added that it would be discussed as “a detail of the very end stage of one sector [of trade talks].”

The UK is currently protected from US-style farming methods, including chlorine-washed chicken, by EU rules that ban it due both to safety concerns and the fears that they could lead to laxer hygiene practices elsewhere in the supply chain.

Prime Minister May told Parliament earlier this year: “We should be proud that in the UK we have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world — indeed, one of the highest scores for animal protection in the world. Leaving the EU will not change that.”

The House of Lords committee warns: “The demand for high-welfare products is ultimately driven by whether consumers prioritise purchasing those products, at added cost, rather than buying cheaper, lower-welfare products.”

The report concludes: “It may be hard to reconcile the Government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade with its desire to maintain high-quality standards for agri-food products Brexit: farm animal welfare within the UK.”

A spokesman for the Department for Food and Rural Affairs told the Guardian: “Leaving the EU provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to shape our farming industry so it works for the UK and helps our farmers grow more world-class food. We are determined to make a success of it, but we will not compromise on our high animal welfare or environmental standards, and we will always protect our proud and varied farming traditions.”