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Factory Chickens to Suffer Under New EU Rules, Says RSPCA
By Caroline Davies on Guardian.co.uk
The new rules would fly in the face of a groundswell of support for better welfare for chickens.
Photograph: Jamie McDonald/Getty
Animal welfare organisations are calling on consumers to act amid fears new EU legislation will lead to hundreds of millions of factory farm chickens being reared in conditions worse than they live in now.
Regulations being considered by Defra will allow farmers to reduce the amount of space allocated to each bird, already less than one sheet of A4 paper, claimed the RSPCA.
Such legislation would fly in the face of a recent groundswell of support from consumers and retailers for improved welfare for chickens following high-profile campaigns by TV chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, said the charity.
Under the current voluntary Assured Chicken Production industry standards in England, farmers can pack 19 broilers into one square metre. The new EU legislation would allow 21. The charity wants 15.
Launching online campaign Quash the Squash, Dr Marc Cooper, an RSPCA senior scientist, said: "At times when more of us are concerned about how chickens are reared, we seem to be in a position where the EU is making conditions worse … implementing these new provisions could have a significant impact on mortality rates ... as well as making it harder for these birds to perform basic natural behaviours like walking."
The charity has set up an online petition, saying a decision by Defra is imminent, possibly as early as next month. There are approximately 855 million chickens reared for meat in the UK each year, with some 90% reared to ACP standards, which the RSPCA does not believe adequate.
Eloise Shavelar, co-ordinator for Compassion in World Farming's (CiWF) Chicken Out campaign, said: "The proposed legislation would mean a huge step backwards for UK poultry welfare."
She added that by supporting the EU directive the UK would be "effectively giving the green light to further intensification of chicken farming".
The government could set a lower limit than the EU order, but campaigners fear ministers may be swayed by arguments that British chicken farms could suffer from competition from lower welfare farms on the continent.
A Defra spokesman said: "The new EU rules for the first time provide a legal baseline on stocking densities for all producers, including those who do not participate in any voluntary assurance scheme." Consumers appear to have responded to sustained campaigns against intensive poultry farming influenced by programmes such as Channel 4's Hugh's Chicken Run, Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too, and Jamie's Fowl Dinners.
Sales of higher welfare chicken have increased despite the credit crunch, according to TNS, retail analysts commissioned by CiWF.
A spokeswoman for Tesco said: "Tesco Willow Farm range, which is accredited to RSPCA Freedom Food standards and is a more affordable higher welfare option, is performing very well."
Sainsbury's added: "Sales on indoor reared Freedom Foods chicken are up over 50% year on year."
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