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UK vs US farming: what’s the difference?

From welfare to antibiotic use, we explain what you need to know

UK vs US farming: what’s the difference?

Antibiotic use, animal welfare practices and pesticides are just some of the main differences between our farming systems and food standards in the UK, and those across the pond.

With trade talks ongoing between the UK and US, we think it’s important to ensure there’s no risk of trading away our food standards.

Read on to see how our farming and welfare practices compare.

Antibiotic use in farming

Globally around 73% of all antibiotic use is in livestock, and antibiotics are still routinely prescribed in intensive farming systems to prevent and control diseases in animals.

In the UK, antibiotic use on farms has fallen by 50% in recent years and we now have much lower use than other countries including the EU and US.

Antibiotic use in livestock farming in the US is much higher; in total, the US uses more than five times as much antibiotics per animal as the UK.

The bar chart below shows how antibiotic use in specific species varies between the UK and US.

Antibiotic use: UK vs US

Antibiotic use on animals uk vs us
It has been illegal to use antibiotics as growth promoters in animals in the UK since 2006, but only since 2017 in the US.

While antibiotic use in the US dropped by 30% in 2017 it has risen again and US consumer groups are concerned the same antibiotics are not being used under the guise of disease prevention.

There are also cases of the US treating plant diseases with antibiotics. In 2019, the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed citrus growers in Florida to spray their trees with antibiotics to delay the spread of citrus greening, a bacterial infection.

The journal Nature estimated growers could have used as much as 440,000kg of antibiotics over the course of the year.

Antibiotics can’t be used on plant crops in the UK.

Animal welfare and meat treatments

In addition to antibiotic use there are other major differences between meat production in the UK compared with the US.

In the US, chickens can be chemically washed, for example using chlorine, at the end of the processing process.

Chemically washing chicken is not allowed in the UK and there are concerns that chlorine and other washes are used to rectify issues caused by poor hygiene in farms and slaughterhouses.

As chemical washes are classed as ‘processing aids’, rather than ingredients, they don’t have to be declared on packaging.

We are concerned that if, as part of a trade deal between the US and UK, the UK allows chlorine-washed chicken to be imported, UK consumers won’t necessarily know whether the chicken they’re buying has been chemically washed or not.

A Which? survey of 2,708 adults in June 2020 showed consumers don’t think labelling is the answer – around 60% of people said chicken washed in chlorine shouldn’t be on sale in the UK.

Other practices banned in the UK but permitted in the US are the use of ractopamine (a feed additive used to promote growth) in pig farming and growth-promoting hormones in beef cattle.

Ractopamine increases the rate of weight gain in pigs and enhances leanness when they’re finished.

Growth-promoting hormones are used in beef cattle in the US where cattle are often kept in ‘feedlots’ where thousands can be kept in pens and fed intensive diets that encourage weight gain.

In the same survey 80% said that they would be uncomfortable eating hormone-treated beef or pork treated with growth promoters.

The UK has detailed legislation on farming animals that is species specific. Unlike the US it protects the welfare of animals while they are on the farm, as well during transportation and slaughter.

Pesticides

The US currently uses 72 pesticides that are not approved for use in the UK.

These include known carcinogens, possible endocrine disruptors, and those that cause harm to the development and reproductive systems of children.

Conversely there are two pesticides approved for use in the UK and EU but not in the US.

Permitted pesticide residues also differ; US grapes can contain as much as 1000 times the level allowed in the UK. And US apples up to 400 times more.

Food standards

There is concern that the UK’s high food standards could be compromised when negotiating trading deals with countries including the US, resulting in food produced to lower standards being imported into the UK.

When asked 95% of people in our survey told us they would be concerned if this happened.

The government has said rules on food standards will be upheld through retained EU legislation via the EU Withdrawal Act.

However we want to see this commitment to ensuring imported food meets UK standards proactively put into law through either the Agriculture Bill or the Trade Bill.

Trade deals present the opportunity for a wider choice of food and other goods at potentially lower prices, and this should be welcomed, but not at the cost of our food standards and consumer confidence.

Make your voice heard: sign our petition to save food standards now

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