DISCOUNT RETAILER Aldi has ventured where the UK's Conservative government has so far feared to tread, by issuing a firm commitment never to accept food imports from countries with lower welfare livestock systems than those allowed under EU law.

This week, the UK's new Agriculture Bill – the flagship legislation intended to set the country's farming on a different course from Europe's Common Agricultural Policy – will come under scrutiny in the House of Lords, and there is still hope that amendments might be added to make it a matter of law that, whatever post-Brexit trade deals are struck, UK consumers will never be offered meat from the chemically extravagant production systems of the United States and its economic satellites.

But as that political process grinds on to its uncertain conclusion, Aldi has followed the lead set by upmarket chain Waitrose, and raised the stakes for all retailers, by pre-emptively issuing its own ban on livestock products from US-style systems, to immediate acclaim from consumer groups and animal welfarists.

Chief Executive of the RSPCA, Chris Sherwood, said: “It is great to see retailers like Aldi and Waitrose speaking out against lower welfare imports – it shows that shoppers of all incomes have no appetite for lower welfare imports.

“We would welcome other retailers making the same commitment. However more importantly we want to see the Government take action now to to enshrine in law the Government’s manifesto commitment that they would not accept imports of food products produced to lower welfare standards.

“We should export higher welfare standards not import barren battery cage eggs, pork from pigs kept in sow stalls, hormone fed beef or chlorinated chicken which will undercut British farming standards and start a race to the bottom in animal welfare standards.”

Speaking from the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, executive manager, Martin Morgan, said: “Association members warmly welcome Aldi’s pledge to never sell chlorinated chicken or hormone-injected beef, as will consumers. We now urge all other retailers in the UK to take note and do likewise.”

Although the UK Government has made manifesto promises not to sacrifice animal welfare standards in the course of securing the third country trade deals it will need to make a success of its retreat from the EU's Single Market, nothing it has done so far is legally binding.

As part of the Brexit process, the UK is inheriting laws from the EU banning chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, but there is as yet nothing to stop those laws being ditched by the majority government once the UK's withdrawal from the EU is complete.

Mr Sherwood added: “A legally binding guarantee which protects our animal standards needs to be explicit in the Agriculture Bill. Ministers have repeatedly promised they will not sell out on our standards so there should be no reason not to commit this to law."

With reference to the ‘trade standards commission’ mooted as a safeguard to the process of international trade deals, the RSPCA stressed that it would only be worthwhile if it were properly independent, expert, transparent, meaningful and accountable to parliament.

“This is a critical moment for the Government to show that their commitment to maintaining standards and protecting British farmers and farm animals is more than lip service.”