The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced new rules on the amount of chickens that can be kept per square metre. Such space allowances are always measured in kilograms of chicken per square metre.
The new EU Directive allows 42kg/m² (up to 21 chickens/m²), and Defra could have copied that figure. However it has chosen the slightly lower figure of 39kg/m² which equates to 19 chickens per square metre.
Whilst we welcome this move, the new UK Regulation does not accept the high welfare standards called for by Compassion in World Farming, consumers and other animal welfare groups. It also ignores the recent parliamentary motion calling for improved standards, which received massive support from MPs of all parties, and came 5th highest in the number of signatures it obtained.
"We welcome Defra's decision not to permit the very high stocking densities allowed under the EU Directive, but the new regulation continues to permit severe overcrowding in UK broiler sheds." says Eloise Shavelar, Compassion's Chicken Out! Campaigner.
The new standards appear to ignore the recommendation of the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare which concluded that "above 30kg/m² [up to 15 chickens/m²], even with very good environmental control systems, there is a steep rise in the frequency of serious problems."
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who launched the Chicken Out! campaign in 2007, says: "Although I'm relieved Defra are not permitting the high stocking density of the EU, there is still much further to go to improve rearing systems for chickens in the UK. This law may permit meat chickens to have more space than their EU cousins but they will still be farmed in conditions that fail to meet many of their basic needs. Thankfully, we haven't taken a step backwards but we still absolutely must take more steps forwards."
Around 700 million chickens suffer in intensive farming systems every year in the UK, to fulfil the average consumer demand of more than 2 kg of chicken per month. The incidence of leg disorders and associated locomotor problems are more frequent at higher stocking densities, according to the EU Scientific Committee. A recent Defra funded study showed that over a quarter of broiler chickens suffer from painful leg disorders.
Mike Hancock MP, sponsor of Early Day Motion 581 said: "The Government could have done so much more for the welfare of chickens today. Chicken welfare will still be a scandal. The EU Scientific Committee has said that there are frequent serious problems at the stocking density which the Government has decided on. 278 MPs supported my motion in Parliament calling for better standards. So, I hope that the Government will take further urgent action to strengthen welfare standards and I will be pressing them to do that. I hope, in any case, that people will vote with their wallets and buy chickens reared to higher welfare standards such as the RSPCA's Freedom Food standard."
Whilst Compassion is pleased that DEFRA went one step better than was possible, we urge them to go further and to encourage chicken farmers to reduce their stocking rates, use more robust chicken breeds and include animal welfare as a core goal in food policy and public procurement.