Government under fire for U-turn on animal welfare guidance

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has decided to reverse its decision to allow “industry-led” guidance, leading to criticism from livestock organisations. 

The government body previously reported that it would allow the industry’s sectors to create welfare guidance that would be supported by Defra. However, a week of pressure from animal protection groups has led to a backtrack in the decision.

“In light of views raised, we have given the matter further consideration and believe we can achieve this objective by retaining the existing statutory codes,” said an official statement from Defra. “The work of the farming industry has been invaluable and we will continue to work with them to ensure our guidance is updated to best help them to comply with our high welfare standards.”

The chicken sector was set to be the first to implement its own guidance, which was due to happen on Wednesday 27 April.

“We’re disappointed by the change of policy at Defra,” said the British Poultry Council’s (BPC) chairman, John Reed.

“What this means now is that we, along with other livestock sectors, will be left with outdated welfare guidance.”

The BPC argued that the new set of guidelines would be implemented in conjunction with Defra, ensuring that all welfare practices were of a high standard.

“We supported the move towards jointly-owned guidance and we have contributed a significant amount of resource to this piece of work and we are frustrated that it has been repealed before we were able to publish the content. By revoking its decision, Defra is walking away from an opportunity to ensure welfare guidance is kept up to date with the latest research, using industry expertise.”

BPC said the purpose of the industry’s involvement was to help poultry farmers comply with the legislation by providing clear and accessible descriptions of the regulatory requirements and by elaborating actions and approaches known to achieve them.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union echoed the BPC’s sentiments, urging Defra to continue work with farming organisations to replace ‘out-of-date’ statutory codes.

“It’s extremely concerning to us that Defra are rescinding the jointly-owned animal welfare guidance – it sets a dangerous precedent for both government and our industry,” said Minette Batters, deputy president of the NFU.

“Reversing considerable efforts with the industry to replace order, out-of-date guidance in the face of sensationalist pressure from campaigning groups undermines both government rationale and the importance of an up-to-date animal welfare code.

“The NFU, alongside other farming organisations, has been strengthening this guidance with scientific evidence, making it relevant to farming practices today. The guidance is one of the key tools farmers can refer to when health planning for their herd or flock and to disregard such an important resource shows little understanding of its value.

“The Secretary of State [Elizabeth Truss] has publicly acknowledged that British farmers have the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. These standards are absolutely integral to the success of any farming business and the effort and investment from farmers is shown in the high-quality produce that results from this care and attention.”

Despite industry disappointment, animal rights group Animal Aid welcomed the decision. “We are pleased to hear that sustained campaigning pressure has compelled Defra to reverse its decision and retain the statutory element of the codes,” said Andrew Tyler, Animal Aid director.

“That means court cases stand a better chance of succeeding. However, our rather major concern was the dominant role Defra was awarding the industry in the writing of these rulebooks on welfare.”

Tyler did acknowledge that it was unclear whether or not the industry would still have a say in future guidelines.

“It is vital that matters of welfare and what constitutes good and bad practice, are not left to those who systematically exploit farmed animals for profit,” he added. “Suffering and exploitation are already integral to animal farming. To deregulate and dilute what slender protection currently exists would have been monstrous.”

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) urged Defra to continue conversations with the industry to find a solution. BVA president Sean Wensley said: “BVA has not opposed the concept of moving to non-statutory codes, some of which are in urgent need of updating to reflect the latest animal welfare science and good practice. However, we have questioned the way in which the consultation has taken place and raised concerns that public confidence could be undermined by a process that wasn’t sufficiently transparent.

“It is now important for Defra to work with the veterinary profession, industry and all relevant stakeholders to find a way forward that ensures vital welfare codes can be brought up to date in an open way that instils public confidence.”

The National Pig Association (NPA), also expressed dissapointment at Defra’s decision to reverse its actions.

“We don’t care whether it’s us or Defra who update the current Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Pigs, as long as it gets done, and as long as we are involved,” said NPA chief executive Dr Zoe Davies.

“The current edition was written 13 years ago. It’s our industry manual and it’s now seriously out of date, and that means we are missing an important opportunity to remind producers of the latest pig welfare legislation and to provide guidance on science-led best practice in pig husbandry.

“The codes are designed to be a farmer-friendly way of providing up-to-date statutory information in tandem with useful advice,” added Davies.

“We are ready to play our part in helping Defra update the current code. Indeed, we insist on having an input. We’ll be pressing them vigorously to get a move on, otherwise we may have to produce our own interim code, because we’re not prepared to wait another 13 years for our pig industry welfare manual to be updated."  

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