A bull and a friesian cow in a field© Tim Graham/robertharding/REX/Shutterstock

Theresa May has promised the UK will maintain its high levels of animal welfare standards after the country leaves the EU.

During her weekly session of questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday (15 March), the prime minister was asked whether her government would protect high levels of animal welfare in farming after Brexit.

Conservative Louth and Horncastle MP Victoria Atkins asked Mrs May if her government would continue to back British farmers and protect standards for local food producers and farmers in Brexit trade deals signed with other countries.

See also: Animal welfare laws must stay or improve, poll finds

“I can assure my right honourable friend that I will certainly do that,” replied Mrs May.

“We do have an opportunity to build a new future for our food and farming industry when we leave the European Union.

“We will maintain the UK’s high standards of food safety and of animal welfare. That will be a priority for us.”

Mrs May said any Brexit trade deals on agriculture would need to be “right for consumers, for businesses, for farmers”.

She added: “They [trade deals] will need to ensure our food safety and environmental protection and of course our animal welfare standards.

“We recognise the need of certainty for businesses. We have already provided guarantees for farmers up to 2020 and I can assure you that we will continue to back British farmers.”

The Country, Land and Business Association (CLA), which has more than 30,000 members in England and Wales, said it would hold Mrs May to account on her comments.

CLA president Ross Murray said: “I am delighted the prime minister has confirmed her unequivocal backing for British farming.

“As we move ever closer to Brexit, our farmers need certainty that their quality products and high environmental and welfare standards will continue to play a major role within the UK and EU food chain and beyond.

“Getting our trade deal with the EU right must be the priority.

“We shall play our part to ensure the government establishes new international trade deals which benefit farmers and consumers alike and will hold the government to account to deliver on this commitment.”

Food imports threat

The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. However, industry leaders are concerned that Brexit and the prospect of free trade deals with countries such as the US could open the market to a flood of food and drink imports produced to lower standards.

For example, in a trade deal with Donald Trump, US foods that have been farmed very differently to the UK, such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, could find their way on UK supermarket shelves.

Previously, Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom has said that the UK’s unique selling point, both home and abroad “should be the highest standards of animal welfare and the highest standards of food traceability”.