Guidance on animal welfare standards is to be scrapped and codes devolved to the farming industry itself, under plans drawn up by Conservative ministers.
The move by ministers to create industry-led regulation will start with a transfer of the code on chicken-farming to the poultry industry on April 27, according to the Guardian.
The British Poultry Council – which includes meat processing giants among its companies – will be in charge of the new animal welfare guidance.
Other livestock sectors, including the cattle, pig and sheep industries could also face similar changes.
The Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, is overseeing the plans as part of her department’s deregulatory agenda. The RSPCA, however, said the new rules may only serve to help ensure animal keepers are compliant with minimum legal requirements.
Kerry McCarthy, the shadow Environment minister, warned the move risks undermining consumer confidence in the food they buy. Labour said to the Guardian the plans were “endangering Britain’s proud tradition as a country that stands up for animal welfare”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), made it clear that legislation that makes it a criminal offence to mistreat animals is not being altered. The spokesperson added: “No changes are being made to farm animal welfare legislation or the strict enforcement and penalties that apply.
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“Instead, the British Poultry Council has produced new non-statutory guidance on how to comply with the legislation. The industry-led guidance can also be used as evidence in court to prove criminal liability and will ensure farmers have the most up-to-date and practical information.”
The RSPCA said: “We are concerned that this change to guidance could impact on the legal weighting these documents have in providing magistrates with legal guidance when considering negligence during animal welfare prosecutions.
“We also have concerns that the new guidance documents may not contain the same level of welfare information as the existing codes and may only serve to help ensure animal keepers are compliant with minimum legal requirements.”
Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment, added: “Abandoning codes of practice for farm animal welfare is not in the best interests of the animals and will not produce higher quality food.
“In the wake of food scandals from horsemeat to campylobacter, scrapping government standards risks undermining public confidence in the food we buy.”