The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has warned a Government decision to revoke statutory farm animal welfare codes risks undermining public confidence in welfare standards on English farms.
The BPC and Defra have defended the move, refuting claims by animal welfare campaigners it represents the start of a drive to repeal animal welfare legislation across the livestock sectors.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) will publish new non-statutory guidance on April 27, revoking the current statutory code on how to comply with welfare legislation for chickens produced for meat and breeding.
Other sectors are preparing to do the same, and the BPC said it planned to review and update the duck and turkey codes in 2017.
The BPC said it welcomed the opportunity to be the first industry, with ‘Ministerial endorsement’, to review welfare guidance.
A BPC spokesman said: “Many of these codes are outdated and Defra does not have the resource to review all of the codes. We were determined to ensure we protected the integrity of the code.”
BPC chairman John Reed added: “This move towards expert-led guidance will ensure welfare is, and will continue to be, paramount in livestock production.
“Law and enforcement remain Defra’s responsibility, and this code does not change the underlying legislation.”
"We have strengthened and updated the code using scientific evidence. As always, we will continue to work with Defra and other stakeholders to keep this under review as knowledge and understanding of welfare develops."
But BVA president Sean Wensley called for ’urgent reassurance’ from the Government about the potential impact of the move on animal welfare.
He said:“It is essential any changes to the welfare codes do not undermine public confidence in the high animal welfare standards set for English farms.
"Although BVA broadly supported the idea of moving to a more flexible system that could take account of new animal welfare science, we maintained that a range of expertise must be used to draw up new guidance.
“We are pleased there will be no changes to legislation which underpins animal welfare, but it is unclear where checks and balances now lie.
"It is vital Defra puts measures in place urgently to provide this reassurance.”
In an article in The Guardian newspaper, animal welfare charities said the move could weaken farm animal welfare standards across the livestock sectors and lead to fewer prosecutions for animal cruelty.
Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming chief policy adviser, said: “I find it hard to believe when one goes from a Government code to an industry code it is going to be as tough.”
"For example, the government code on pigs is quite tough. It says tail docking should only be used as a last resort. Would the pig industry would keep such tough wording?
"I think inevitably one will see a dilution of the codes."
An RSPCA spokesperson said it was concerned about the ’downgrading’ of the guidelines.
“We are concerned that this change to guidance could impact on the legal weighting these documents have in providing magistrates with legal guidance when considering negligence during animal welfare prosecutions."
The BPC said it worked ’very closely’ with Defra to ensure there was no weakening of the guidance, while the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) were among those consulted and ’were satisfied with the content’.
A Defra spokesperson said: “No changes are being made to farm animal welfare legislation or the strict enforcement and penalties that apply.
“We want to continue to have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world and will continue to listen to and work with all parties.”
In Defra’s response to the consultation on the change, it said:
"A move to non-statutory guidance is likely to have a minimal impact on the way in which the guidance can be used in court proceedings and will be outweighed by the benefits to farmers of having more up to date guidance on good practice available."