25 April 2017 | Online since 2003

5 September 2016

Backlash grows against Freedom Food rule changes


The new standards are due to come into force next month, but a number of planned changes have angered free range producers, and egg industry leaders have been pressing for a meeting with RSPCA chief executive Jez Cooper to outline their concerns. “We have many concerns about these changes so we are looking to arrange an urgent meeting so we can deal with them as soon as possible,” said Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA).

One of the planned changes to have aroused most opposition is the introduction of a requirement for aerial perching. Both the egg industry and the Westminster Government have in the past successfully fought to prevent the European Union imposing aerial perching rules on producers in England and Wales. The Scottish Government already requires the use of aerial perching, and Freedom Food is now seeking to impose this requirement on its producers across the UK.

Under changes to the standards, the new perching requirement would come into force in October next year, although the rules could impact on producers putting flocks in this year. The rules will apply to all birds in production at the time the new rules become active, not just to new flocks housed after October 7, 2017. Some producers have said this places them in an impossible position.

Egg industry representatives met recently under the auspices of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) to discuss how to deal with producers’ concerns, and they agreed to seek a meeting with Jez Cooper. Both the BEIC and BFREPA have confirmed that they are pushing for a meeting with the RSPCA, although the Ranger understands that the animal charity has indicated that it could make concessions – particularly in the contentious area of perching. Robert Gooch would not discuss what concessions the RSPCA may have offered. He said BFREPA still wanted a meeting with the RSPCA to discuss all the association’s concerns.

He said that egg industry representatives would be seeking “to take things forward to the highest level of the RSPCA. We are trying to organise a meeting urgently. There is a long list of concerns. One of them is the issue of perching. There is also concern about the notice period for buying pullets, as well as the rules about end of lay birds. Concerns were expressed from all sections of the industry during the meeting,” said Robert, referring to the meeting called by BEIC to discuss the Freedom Food changes.

Mark Williams, chief executive of the BEIC, described the meeting as “very useful” and said, “A great deal of concern was expressed about the amended standards issued by the RSPCA. Many producers are concerned about the decision making process, as well as the bird welfare and cost implications of implementing them,” said Mark, who also confirmed that the industry’s representatives would be seeking to speak to the RSPCA in an attempt to overcome the issues. “At the end of the day you have to take people with you,” said Mark.
The new standards will require 15 centimetres of raised perching per bird in all new and refurbished units from October 7, 2017. Existing units will need eight centimetres of aerial perching from that date and 10 centimetres from October 7 the following year. There is also a warning that existing units could subsequently be required to provide the full 15 centimetres of perching.

Mia Fernyhough, senior scientific officer with the RSPCA, told the Ranger that the RSPCA had sought to introduce the perching requirements in a way that would make it easier for producers to comply. “We decided on a gradual introduction for existing units to give producers time to make the changes,” said Mia. The Ranger asked whether these changes would apply to flocks housed after October 7, 2017 or whether the rules would apply to all birds housed on that date, including those introduced this year and still in production. She said, “We would expect all producers to be compliant with the standards by October 2017. The three month notification period, together with the one year lead-in time, should be sufficient for producers to prepare for the new standards, for example at their next flock turn around,” said Mia.

“Many producers will already be providing some aerial perching, for example over drinker lines. We therefore do not anticipate eight centimetres causing significant issue, particularly given that producers in Scotland and Ireland already successfully provide 15 centimetres of aerial perch space per hen,” she said.

However, the change is one of the more contentious issues raised with egg industry representatives, along with a requirement that producers should have an injurious pecking action plan signed off by the RSPCA at least one month before ordering new pullets.

The new rules require that an action plan should be submitted to the RSPCA farm animals department. Freedom Food says in its explanatory document, “Injurious Pecking Action Plans (IPAPs) will be signed by the RSPCA Farm Animals Department where sufficient detail has been provided within the submission. The signed IPAP will be valid for the lifetime of the flock(s) for which the application was made. Where more than one flock is placed at the same time on the same site, a single IPAP will be accepted for these flocks.”

Freedom Food says that producers must be able to “demonstrate the actions taken in respect of their agreed injurious pecking action plan.” This requirement will come into force on all new flocks housed after October 7, 2017.

Another change to the standards requires that from October 2018 producers must use a Freedom Food approved abattoir for hens at the end of their productive lives. It would appear that permissible killing methods used in an RSPCA approved abattoir may not comply with some interpretations of Islamic law and could impact on sales of spent hens into the halal meat market.

For producer responses to the introduction of new Freedom Food revisions see the letters section.

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