Battery chickens face increased crowding under new legislation

Campaigners protest over EU rules that could see birds kept in worse conditions

Animal welfare campaigners protested outside the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday over plans to set new limits on the number of chickens that can be housed in factory farms.

The chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and members of the group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) complained that the proposals would allow up to 42kg of chicken (or about 21 birds) per square metre. Defra's current recommendation is for no more than 34kg (about 17 birds).

The legislation enshrines an EU directive into British law. Although the Government could set a lower limit than the EU order, the Government says it does not want to make British chicken farms uncompetitive. British pig farms lost business when the Government raised standards and supermarkets increased orders for cheaper pork from lower-welfare farms on the Continent. Public consultation on the proposals, which will be implemented in 2010, ended last week.

"This is the equivalent of adding more than 11,500 extra chickens into a large shed that already holds 50,000 chickens," CIWF said. "Each chicken will have less floor space than an A4 sheet of paper – even less than a battery hen currently has."

EU research has shown there is a steep increase in the frequency of serious welfare problems in "stocking densities" above 30kg (about 15 birds). Lasse Bruun, head of campaigns for CIWF, said: "Intensively farmed chickens are already suffering from lack of space, lameness, weak legs and lung failure, yet this proposal will only make the situation worse and goes entirely against the public's demand for higher animal welfare."

Fearnley-Whittingstall, who campaigned against intensive poultry farming last year, added: "People have become increasingly concerned about the conditions their food has been raised in. Consumers, especially those on tight budgets, rely on the Government to ensure food they have access to is of an acceptable ethical standard."

A spokeswoman for Defra said the Government had yet to make up its mind about stocking density.