16 August 2018 | Online since 2003

15 October 2017

Egg producers pass no confidence motion in RSPCA Assured

More than 80 per cent of producers who responded to a BFREPA survey said that they did not support Freedom Food's proposals

Free range egg producers have passed a no confidence vote in Freedom Food following the latest twist in an increasingly bitter dispute over aerial perching.

The RSPCA is still insisting that owners of traditional flat deck houses must retro-fit aerial perches to comply with new rules drawn up for Freedom Food, the RSPCA's assurance scheme, despite widespread opposition from producers. Now, members of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) have overwhelmingly passed a motion of no confidence in Freedom Food, after being told that the animal welfare charity had decided at the 11th hour not to support research into the impact of aerial perches on keel bone damage.

BFREPA chief executive Robert Gooch said, "We proposed to the University of Bristol, who have done a lot of work on this, to do a joint project with the RSPCA," Robert Gooch told those attending BFREPA's annual conference in the Midlands. "That was part of the discussions we had over the last year, that we should do some work on this. The University of Bristol spent over a month putting together a proposal, which was supported by BFREPA, and in principle by the RSPCA. That grant application went in yesterday," said Robert.

However, he said that the RSPCA had decided not to support the application the day before, because it says it was not happy with the research proposals. "We are very, very disappointed, to say the least. Again, we have taken all the steps to try to work with them to get to satisfactory scientific solutions so that we can come together on this issue, which has been a big problem for both organisations over the last year, and they have pulled out of that dialogue," said Robert. "So we are very disappointed with that. The application has gone through and we hope it still succeeds without the RSPCA's support but it doesn't look as positive that this research will get the grant funding it needs."

RSPCA Assured rejected claims that it has pulled out of the research, saying it was never formally involved.

Freedom Food is changing its rules to require producers with traditional flat deck units to install eight centimetres of aerial perching by August 2018 - a move that has caused huge controversy, with a number of producers saying they will now consider quitting the RSPCA's assurance scheme. More than 80 per cent of producers who responded to a BFREPA survey said that they did not support Freedom Food's proposals. And BFREPA has pointed to existing research, which suggests that retro-fitting aerial perches could impact on animal welfare by increasing keel bone damage in birds.

A leading scientist, Professor John Tarlton of Bristol University, who has conducted research into keel bone damage, says that aerial perching increases both the incidence and the severity of keel bone injuries in birds. "I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that it improves welfare," he has told the Ranger. He said he was worried that Freedom Food was pressing ahead with plans to enforce the installation of aerial perches.

He said that existing research indicated that aerial perches could increase the risk of keel bone damage towards 90 per cent at end of lay. "If they want go ahead with this, it needs to be evidence led and I am not sure that it is evidence led at the moment," said the professor. "It's a worry."

It is Professor Tarlton who has been asked to conduct the new research, which was initially supported in principle by both BFREPA and the RSPCA. The proposed research is entitled, 'When is a perch not a perch; the welfare impact of fitting aerial perches in laying hen free range systems to comply with the RSPCA assured requirements.' BFREPA has agreed to provide some funding for the research from its sustainability fund - a fund made up of sponsorship provided by some of the leading companies in the industry. However, it is hoped that the main part of the funding will come from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Robert Gooch said, "It is a study to look at that particular standard requirement and come up with conclusive answers." He said it would be done by one of the top scientific establishments looking into this type of work. Robert said he could not understand why, if the RSPCA had not wanted to be involved, it had not said so before all the work was done on preparing the submission. Instead, it had waited until the very last minute to decide not to participate in the proposed research.

At the annual meeting of BFREPA, which followed the association's conference, BFREPA members expressed their fury at what the RSPCA was doing. BFREPA chairman James Baxter said that the association had made clear its opposition to the changes, but it did not seem to be listening to what the industry was saying.

A motion proposed from the floor of the AGM read, 'Members give notice to the Council (of BFREPA) that we have no confidence in Freedom Food's recent amendments.' Only one member of the association voted against the motion. BFREPA members said that packers and retailers should be made aware of the motion, as well as the RSPCA. Some members of the association felt that BFREPA should consider pulling out of Freedom Food completely as a group.

Freedom Food has said it is confident that providing properly designed raised perches in the right positions in the hen house will help to deliver significant improvements to hen welfare. It previously issued a statement, saying, "Hens have a strong natural instinct to perch. Providing raised perches can reduce stress, fear and birds pecking each other, as well as improving body condition.

"Our standards are devised to be stretching but achievable, and while we understand they may be challenging for some farmers to apply, the phase-in period we allow for application of the new standards should help with this. "Any change to an RSPCA standard is undertaken following consideration of a range of available evidence, including the latest scientific research, expert opinion and practical experience, and involves consultation with a range of stakeholders including the veterinary profession, welfare researchers, farmers and industry groups."

Freedom Food has made some concessions on its original proposed changes. It originally intended the changes to come into force in 2017. And it originally indicated that existing units may eventually need to provide 15 centimetres of aerial perching, like new units. The requirement for existing sheds has now been capped at eight centimetres. Freedom Food has also withdrawn the requirements for specific perching configurations on multi-tier systems.


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