18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

9 July 2018

Farmers abandoning egg production due to aerial perching rules, BFREPA says

The association representing free range egg producers has warned Freedom Food that some farmers are abandoning egg production because they are finding it "virtually impossible" to comply with a controversial new aerial perching rule.

Freedom Food, the assurance scheme of the RSPCA, is changing its standards to require producers with traditional flat deck units to install eight centimetres of aerial perching - a change that was strenuously opposed by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA). The new rule is due to come into force this August.

Now, BFREPA chief executive Robert Gooch has written an open letter to the RSPCA, warning that some producers are struggling to comply with the new rule. In the letter, which was addressed to RSPCA senior scientific officer Mia Fernyhough, Robert Gooch said he had been warning about the implications of the rule change since it was first proposed in July 2016.

"I have been pointing out to you the difficulties that many producers will face retro-fitting aerial perches into their single tier houses. Producers may be able to understand a revision that requires new houses to incorporate aerial perching, but to retro-fit them within the required spacing limitations into mobile and some other types of flat deck houses is virtually impossible, depending on the design of the house," he said.

"We need to be clear here that your aerial perching criteria differ from those used in Scotland and Northern Ireland in many ways, and that in most cases their aerial perches will not comply. For example, most are placed in ladder formation, rather than offset as required by the new standard.

"We are now coming up to crunch time in terms of implementation. As we get closer to the deadline, some producers are being forced to give up looking after hens because they cannot see how to retro-fit perches to the defined criteria into their houses; others are looking to stop supplying RSPCA Assured (the new name for the Freedom Food brand) packers and retailers and are finding other markets for their eggs; and others are converting to multi-tier systems. Then there is the final segment, who are still undecided about what to do."

He called on the RSPCA to help farmers struggling to meet the amended standard and raised the possibility of derogations being offered to producers who could not comply with the requirement. "The undecideds have been looking for help from the RSPCA but are not getting the support they need. They tell me that RSPCA Assured assessors will not provide advice, as it conflicts with their auditing role, so it is up to you (the RSPCA Farm Animals Department) to provide the resource and capability to resolve technical implementation issues, such as how aerial perches can be installed when the structure of the house cannot support the weight of the extra perching and birds."

Robert said that many house structures were not designed to take the extra weight needed to retro-fit aerial perches.

"Free range producers need you to provide the resource to show how to deliver this new standard that you have imposed on them. You created this standard without listening to our advice, so now you must step up to the plate and provide the easy solutions that you claim are available."

Robert said, "I am recommending that all members with compliance difficulties contact you directly so that you can urgently provide formal derogations on a case by case basis, or en block for certain types of flat deck structures."

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. At the association's annual conference in October BFREPA members passed a no confidence motion in Freedom Food over the issue.

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, although 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.

"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," it said in a statement on the subject.

"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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