Last week saw Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison agree in principle to a UK-Australia free trade deal. For most, this was a welcome announcement, but many British farmers it have greeted it with scepticim and unease. Unfortunately, these high-stakes trade negotiations have been overshadowed by months of fear-mongering and misinformation over Australian beef imports.
The chief culprits have been the Scottish National Party’s Ian Blackford and National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President, Minette Batters, who seem more interested in the UK’s agricultural industry rejoining the EU by stealth than embracing the opportunities that a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ can deliver.
The NFU, for instance, claimed that Australia could export beef that would be illegal for UK farmers to produce – such as cattle treated with hormonal growth promotants (HGPs). This process is used across the US, Canada, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand where British tourists have no doubt found the consumption of steaks when travelling to these countries to be perfectly safe.
But in any case, Australia was not demanding access for HGP products to the UK. The Australian beef industry already has an entirely separate supply chain, involving a comprehensive quality control scheme that ensures beef destined for the EU and UK adhere to, and most likely exceeds, local market standards for red meat products. Under the Australian scheme, all cattle are given an individual electronic identification tag which guarantees full traceability from farm to plate, ensuring complete segregation of HGP-treated and HGP-free cattle and compliance with the EU’s ban.
The UK government has rightly committed to protecting British food standards, but it remains the case that HGPs are natural, safe, and endorsed by the relevant scientific authorities. In fact, they were widely used in British farming until they were banned by the European Union. So why did the EU ban them?
It was a classic regulatory overreaction. Some Italian farmers were caught illegally using a synthetic hormone, diethylstilbestrol, which is not approved for use anywhere today, including in Australia. This prompted a review of all HGPs by a European Commission (EC) Working Group.
This group, which consisted of internationally renowned veterinary experts on hormones, found that the three natural hormones (17β-estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone) that are currently approved for use in Australia would not present a risk to human health if administered correctly.
But that didn’t suit the EU. They refused to publish these conclusions and dissolved the Working Group. And when its findings were supported by a risk assessment that was independently undertaken by the World Health Organization in 1988, they ignored that too.
Instead, they banned the use of all HGPs inside the EU in 1985, and followed up by banning the importation of beef from HGP-treated cattle in 1989 – a move which the World Trade Organization later ruled against, on the basis that it was not based on scientific evidence.
They did this in the teeth of opposition from the UK, where HGPs were widely used and whose own independent evidence was in line with that of the international experts, rather than the EU’s conclusion.
It is therefore puzzling to hear UK politicians make any suggestion that Australia has lower agricultural standards or that Australian meat is in any way ‘cheap’. In reality, Australia’s practices are completely in line with the UK’s own independent scientific advice.
So, what does the practice involve and why do most of the major beef-producing nations treat their cattle with HGPs?
The Australian beef industry produces 2.3 million tonnes of beef per year – two and a half times as much as the UK. In order to meet demand, approximately 40% of Australia’s cattle are treated with HGPs. This allows farmers in arid conditions to produce more beef with less feed, whilst also reducing their environmental impact through lower lifetime greenhouse gas emissions.
Contrary to what many believe, HGPs are not ‘injected’ or ‘fed’ to cattle. Instead, the practice involves a small pellet being placed under the skin behind the animal’s ear which slowly releases low doses of oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These naturally-occurring hormones are present in all animals (and humans) – and thus any suggestion that the EU and UK only produce ‘hormone-free’ beef is a misnomer.
The levels of these hormones found in beef from treated cattle is negligible compared to untreated cattle and is actually much lower than many other foods. To put this into perspective, if we consider a healthy portion of meat is about the size of your palm, a consumer would have to eat more than 76,500 steaks from an HGP-treated steer in one sitting to get the same level of oestrogen found in just one egg.
To ensure hormone levels are safe for consumers and not harmful to animals, their use is heavily regulated and monitored by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. These strict controls have meant that residues of HGPs found in Australian beef are 100% compliant with Australia’s high public health and safety standards.
While there is no suggestion that the UK Government is about to agree to importing Australian beef from HGP-treated cattle, the legality of HGPs should be considered outside the context of trade negotiations. This would give parliamentarians and indeed, British consumers, the opportunity to review the facts and whether the continuation of the EU’s ban is right for the UK.
Ministers should therefore be careful not to lend credence to misinformation about Australia’s practices and standards by those who aim to advance the EU’s anti-competitive, protectionist agricultural agenda. British consumers deserve the facts and to be given the opportunity to choose to buy and eat top quality Australian beef without being fed a load of bull.
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