Welfare groups object to chicken legislation

Animal welfare charities have called on the government to protect chicken welfare by rejecting new EU proposals on living conditions.

Defra is currently considering how to implement the EU Broiler Welfare Directive, which will come into force across the UK in 2010.

The Directive sets stocking limits for chickens reared for meat production for the first time, but allows producers to stock to 33kg/m2 to 39kg/m2 if certain welfare indicators are measured and shown not to be compromised. This can be increased to 42kg/m2 if results of welfare monitoring for the previous seven cycles of birds meet Directive standards.

Welfare groups complain that this reduction would mean chickens could be reared in less space than they are under current basic industry standards in England. The RSPCA said that this would be a “retrograde step” that would have a significant impact on the lives hundreds of millions of chickens.

“At a time when more of us are concerned about how chickens are reared, we seem to be in a position where the EU is making conditions worse, not better,” said Dr Marc Cooper, RSPCA senior farm animal scientist.

“Implementing these new provisions could have a significant impact on mortality rates, skin and leg problems, as well as making it harder for these birds to perform basic natural behaviours like walking or flapping their wings.”

The RSPCA has launched an online campaign to highlight this issue, and is urging people to sign an e-petition at www.giveanimalsavoice.org.uk. Leading animal welfare charities, the World Society of the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Compassion in World Farming have backed the campaign.

In response, NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns said that welfare indicators such as daily mortality rates and leg and foot health, which are all issues highlighted by welfare groups like the RSPCA, will be monitored and recorded by Defra vets and farmers as part of the Directive.

“Should the results of this monitoring show bird welfare is lacking, producers can be prevented from stocking above 33kg/m2,” he said.

“The Broiler Welfare Directive is outcome-based legislation and allows modern, efficient farms with skilled stockmen to operate to higher stocking rates if they can demonstrate bird welfare is not compromised. The UK government has pledged to cut red tape for industry, and what the RSPCA is proposing is simple gold-plating of EU legislation.”