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New proposals from the Animal Welfare Committee have suggested a change to current welfare law to allow for the handling of chickens by their legs

Animal rights campaigners have warned new animal welfare proposals will lead to the “diluting” of EU-derived welfare laws post-Brexit.

New proposals from the independent Animal Welfare Committee – which advises Defra and the Welsh and Scottish governments – have suggested a change to current welfare law to allow for the handling of chickens by their legs.

The proposal was described as “the first open suggestion of removing an EU animal welfare protection since the UK left the EU in 2020,” by Serena Conforti, advocacy officer at The Animal Law Foundation.

“This is despite the fact the government not only made promises not to dilute standards, it claimed that the UK would use its freedom to improve welfare standards,” said Conforti. “The current illegal and inhumane handling of chickens in the UK is a stark reminder of the need to prioritise animal welfare in our society.”

Handling chickens by the legs caused significant pain and distress, and injuries like fractures and dislocations, said the foundation. Additionally, when chickens were inverted they could suffocate, as their organs begin to crush their lungs, which are not protected by a diaphragm.

Handling chickens by the legs is prohibited under European Transport Regulation 1/2005, which still applies to the UK, following Brexit.

But despite this, the government’s own codes of practice for chickens bred for meat and eggs both mention that picking up by two legs is allowed, in contravention of the law. And this was position could now be formalised if Defra adopts the AWC’s new proposals.

“Rather than encouraging farmers to give their chickens the small dignity of responsible handling when they are dragged off to slaughter, the Animal Welfare Committee has suggested legalising cruel leg-holding and slashing important standards which are already ignored,” said Cordelia Britton, head of programs at The Humane League UK.

The implementation of the AWC option would “violate promises” made by the government to use Brexit to “strengthen the UK’s animal welfare standards”, said The Animal Law Foundation.

The government said it was carefully considering the findings from the AWC before setting out next steps. 

We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world,” said a Defra spokesperson. “All farm animals are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health and welfare legislation and it is an offence to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering.”