Defra has been accused of bowing to ’sensationalist pressure’ from animal welfare campaigners after it abandoned plans to replace statutory animal welfare codes for poultry with industry-led voluntary codes.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) has accused Defra of ’walking away’ from the chance to update outdated guidance, while the NFU warned Defra has set a ’dangerous precedent’ in backing down in the face of vocal campaigning.
The BPC was due to 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 were preparing to do the same, with BPC planning to review and update the duck and turkey codes in 2017.
Earlier this week, AHDB Pork announce new guidance to help pig producers comply with legislation was to be drawn up by the Pig Health and Welfare Council (PHWC).
However, the move created a significant backlash, with animal welfare groups and opposition MPs, led by Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy, warning the move could weaken farm animal welfare standards across the livestock sectors and lead to fewer prosecutions for animal cruelty.
Last week, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) joined the calls for a rethink warning the changes risked ’undermining public confidence in the high animal welfare standards set for English farms’.
On Thursday afternoon, Defra revealed Ministers had had a change of heart.
A Defra spokesperson said: “In light of views raised, we have given the matter further consideration and believe we can achieve this objective by retaining the existing statutory codes.
"The work of the farming industry has been invaluable and we will continue to work with them to ensure our guidance is updated to best help them to comply with our high welfare standards.
“We have the highest standards of animal welfare in the world, and no changes have been proposed to the legislation upholding them.
"We want to draw more closely on the expertise of the farming industry to ensure our welfare codes reflect the very latest scientific and veterinary developments."
Defra reiterated no changes were ever planned to farm animal welfare legislation, or the strict enforcement and penalties that apply.
BPC chairman John Reed said: “We’re disappointed by the change of policy at Defra. What this means now is that we, along with other livestock sectors, will be left with outdated welfare guidance.
BPC’s frustration is understandable given it had been working on the guidance since 2012, pumping significant time and resource into gathering the expertise together to redraft the codes.
This followed recommendations from the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) and the MacDonald task force that government should consider moving towards industry-led guidance due to the number of outdated statutory welfare codes requiring an update.
BPC denied ’speculation’ the move would mean the livestock industry would become self-regulating.
BPC said: "This was never the case. The law and enforcement of animal welfare regulations were always going to remain with Defra.
AHWBE chairman Michael Seals said his board, which recommended the move to non-statutory guidance, was 'disappointed at the turn of events'.
He said: "Many industry sectors want to see a modern, professional welfare code that can be updated when necessary reflecting and driving improvements to welfare.
"It has been good to see a very wide range of interests in the sector working in partnership, with government, to provide a draft code that had the benefit of being consulted on widely.
"We will work with industry to seek a way forward."
NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: “It’s extremely concerning to us that Defra are rescinding the jointly-owned animal welfare guidance - it sets a dangerous precedent for both government and our industry.
“Reversing considerable efforts with the industry to replace older, out-of-date guidance in the face of sensationalist pressure from campaigning groups undermines both government rationale and the importance of an up-to-date animal welfare code.
“The NFU, alongside other farming organisations, has been strengthening this guidance with scientific evidence, making it relevant to farming practices today.
"The guidance is one of the key tools farmers can refer to when health planning for their herd or flock and to disregard such an important resource shows little understanding of its value."
BVA president Sean Wensley said: “BVA has not opposed the concept of moving to non-statutory codes, some of which are in urgent need of updating to reflect the latest animal welfare science and good practice.
"However, we have questioned the way in which the consultation has taken place and raised concerns that public confidence could be undermined by a process that wasn’t sufficiently transparent.
“It is now important for Defra to work with the veterinary profession, industry and all relevant stakeholders to find a way forward that ensures vital welfare codes can be brought up to date in an open way that instils public confidence.”
The National Pig Association gave a 'guarded welcome' to the Government’s unexpected decision.
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “We don’t care whether it’s us or Defra who update the current Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Pigs, as long as it gets done, and as long as we are involved.
“The current edition was written 13 years ago. It’s our industry manual and it’s now seriously out of date, and that means we are missing an important opportunity to remind producers of the latest pig welfare legislation and to provide guidance on science-led best practice in pig husbandry.
“The codes are designed to be a farmer-friendly way of providing up-to-date statutory information in tandem with useful advice.
“We are ready to play our part in helping Defra update the current code. Indeed we insist on having an input.
"We’ll be pressing them vigorously to get a move on, otherwise we may have to produce our own interim code, because we’re not prepared to wait another 13 years for our pig industry welfare manual to be updated."
Compassion in World Farming's Philip Lymbery said: "The government’s proposal to scrap these statutory codes would have been a major leap backwards for farm animals – allowing industry bodies to set, regulate and inspect welfare standards on UK chicken farms with no third-party involvement.
"This decision followed an overwhelming amount of media interest in the subject which helped to raise public awareness of this contentious issue.
"It is fantastic, that Defra has listened to public concerns and made this monumental U-turn but they must now act quickly to update and strengthen these codes.
"We must use this opportunity to push Defra to enforce its code requirements, to increase animal welfare standards throughout the food and farming industry."