British poultry growers have panned new EU chicken welfare rules agreed last week by farm ministers.

They say the directive from Brussels could lower welfare standards in the UK and won't create a level playing field with producers in other EU countries.

"It won't make a blind bit of difference to the average British chicken," said NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns. "When a directive leaves it to individual governments, you never end up with a level playing field. This won't help us to compete with our EU neighbours."

The new rules will restrict producers to 42kg of birds per sq m of shed space, but farm assured producers in the UK are already limited to a maximum density of 38kg/sq m. "And to grow for Tesco's premium chicken range, you need to stick to

30kg/sq m," Bourns added.

Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said the new rules would improve competition within the EU, but fell short in key areas. "We're disappointed it didn't include standards for free-range and organic." The directive also forces British producers to increase light levels in sheds. Bradnock said the brightness could reduce welfare, not increase it.

Although the rules are broadly cost-free, Brussels has left the door open for further measures. It specifically mentioned potential welfare labelling for chicken and possible sanctions for poor welfare, and has also promised to look at the role of chicken genetics in welfare problems.

Defra animal health and welfare minister Ben Bradshaw hailed the deal as an unprecedented step for chicken welfare. "This major sector has for the first time a set of strict rules to adhere to."

The directive only applies to flocks larger than 500 birds and comes into force in 2010.