Free-range egg producers in animal welfare row

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British animal welfare body the RSPCA has introduced new requirements for all free-range poultry farmers, sparking a row over ethical standards.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) runs an assurance scheme for free-range egg producers, acting as an independent moderator for welfare standards in the industry.

The scheme recently announced its intention to alter current standards for free-range farms, requiring all producers to provide 8 centimetres (cm) perching space for each hen on the farm.

This means give extra room to the chickens to move around and behave naturally.

However, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) has hit back at their intentions, citing new research showing additional perching space could be damaging to the hen’s welfare.

Chief executive of BFREPA said in a statement:

“We are opposed to this requirement on a number of levels with hen welfare being our primary concern. The evidence we have seen from Bristol University shows that fitting large amounts of aerial perching can lead to an increase in keel bone damage to hens. It is a welfare concern that we would expect any organisation – particularly the RSPCA – to recognise. At a practical level this will also cause huge difficulties for those retrofitting perches to sheds that weren’t designed for them and are likely to hamper daily management procedures.”

A study at Bristol University found that hens kept in barns fitted with bars designed for perching, as the RSPCA are now requiring, results in higher rates of damage to the keel bones of hens. This was due to the perching bars invading space in which the hens move around, meaning the birds often fly into them, braking the keel bone around the breast.

Ben Pike, a spokesperson for BFREPA, told us the new rules will be implemented by August 2018 and affect around 250 free-range producers in the UK.

“When you think that the average life of a free-range flock is 72 months, this is the last flock farmers have before the new rules have to be implemented.”

Due to the ongoing avian influenza epidemic in Europe, this news puts added pressure on free range producers, who have been forced to house all hens indoors (thus technically losing the legal free range status) for over three months.

Gooch said BFREPA had offered to conduct further research on behalf of the RSPCA and that the “offer remains open”.

However, Lucy Cooper - a spokesperson for the RSPCA - told FoodNavigator, "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."

Birds have a "natural instinct to perch" she added, and said that introducing perches would improve body condition and reduce stress and fear in hens. 

"The sole focus of the RSPCA’s standards is to improve farm animal welfare.

"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."

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