Government planning to repeal animal welfare codes
06 Mar, 2016
Conservative ministers are planning to repeal an array of official guidance on animal welfare standards, starting with a move to put the code on chicken-farming into the hands of the poultry industry.
Liz Truss, the environment secretary, is overseeing moves to scrap the statutory codes on farm animal welfare and move to an “industry-led” guidance as part of her department’s deregulatory agenda.
In a change that has caused concern with the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, and opposition parties, the government has already quietly tabled a draft order to scrap the official code on farming chickens for meat and breeding.
It is planning to revoke the code on 27 April – the day that new guidelines will be made public by the British Poultry Council, which will in future be in charge of writing and keeping the new regulatory code.
The industry body counts chicken hatchers and breeders as well as meat-processing giants such as Faccenda and 2Sisters among its member companies.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed it will now begin working with other livestock sectors in a staged timetable of reform. Other sectors that could get control of their own guidance include the cattle, sheep and pig farming industries.
A Defra spokeswoman said that overarching animal welfare legislation that sets out criminal offences will remain in place alongside the new industry code. “No changes are being made to farm animal welfare legislation or the strict enforcement and penalties that apply,” she said.
“Instead, the British Poultry Council has produced new non-statutory guidance on how to comply with the legislation. The industry-led guidance can also be used as evidence in court to prove criminal liability and will ensure farmers have the most up-to-date and practical information.”
However, charities are worried that the move regarding poultry could weaken animal welfare standards in farms and lead to fewer prosecutions for animal cruelty.
Legislation that makes it a criminal offence to mistreat animals is not being changed but the statutory codes have until now been used to give magistrates guidance on where those being prosecuted have fallen short compared with good practice.
Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming, said the charity was deeply concerned about the scope for animal welfare standards to be weakened.
“I find it very 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.
“I don’t think this is isolated but part and parcel of a wider approach. The job of a government department is to hold the balance between competing interests. It is not to come down on one side and say animal welfare, dietary health and the environment have to be subservient to the needs of industry. It is both damaging in itself, and illustrative and symptomatic of this wider problem that we are getting.”
In responses to the government’s consultation, released under Freedom of Information laws, concerns were also raised that in the future the code on chickens could move to recommend the common industry practice of catching birds with just one leg, rather than the government code’s current advice on catching with two legs.
The RSPCA said it has been voicing concerns for the past three years about the “downgrading” of the guidelines from statutory codes to industry-led guidance and criticised the lack of transparency around the process.
“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,” a spokeswoman said.
“We also have concerns that the new guidance documents may not contain the same level of welfare information as the existing codes and may only serve to help ensure animal keepers are compliant with minimum legal requirements.”
The British Poultry Council said that the body had worked very closely with the government to ensure there was no weakening of standards. It said many of the codes are outdated and Defra did not have the resources to view all of them, but the new chicken guidance has been reviewed “using a significant amount of resource from the industry” and based on scientific evidence.
John Reed, chairman of the British Poultry Council, said: “We were determined to ensure that we protected the integrity of the code. It was critical for the BPC to achieve the endorsement from Defra to ensure its credibility and acceptance by charities, retailers and the industry itself. A robust review procedure will be put in place to ensure that the requirements in the code are kept up to date with any new legislation and research.”
Labour said the plans were “endangering Britain’s proud tradition as a country that stands up for animal welfare”.
Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Abandoning codes of practice for farm animal welfare is not in the best interests of the animals and will not produce higher quality food.”
The move to deregulate animal welfare comes after the Guardian exposed poor hygiene standards in some of the poultry industry last year.
McCarthy added: “In the wake of food scandals from horsemeat to campylobacter, scrapping government standards risks undermining public confidence in the food we buy.”
Kate Parminter, a Lib Dem peer, will now table a regret motion in the House of Lords next month, saying she was “very, very concerned” that the process for scrapping the animal welfare codes was “not clear, not transparent and not all parties have been included”.
Government sources said that the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and in Europe has pushed for higher standards, including ban on sow stalls, battery cages for laying hens and veal crates.
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Taken for the Guardian