The poultry sector has slammed Defra’s decision to scrap plans to abolish “outdated” statutory animal welfare codes and move to industry-led guidance.

Poultry was due to become the first livestock sector to move from the current codes to industry-led guidance on 27 April, but Defra last week u-turned on the plans following a backlash from campaign groups.

British Poultry Council chairman John Reed said the decision was “disappointing” and meant an opportunity to bring guidance up to date would be missed. “What this means now is that we, along with other livestock sectors, will be left with outdated welfare guidance.”  

The plans - part of a deregulation drive unveiled late last month by environment secretary Liz Truss - would have seen Defra scrap its official code on animal welfare across the poultry, pork and red meat sectors, and replace it with new guidance developed in tandem with industry.

While Defra insisted there would be no change to animal welfare legislation or to penalties applied for mistreating animals, the plans prompted warnings from campaign groups that industry would be given free rein to write their own rules on animal welfare and would dilute standards, with a joint letter sent to Truss from the likes of Peta, Compassion in World Farming and shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy warning the new rules were tantamount to self-regulation.

These calls prompted Defra to u-turn on the plans on Thursday (7 April) “in light of views raised”. However, the BPC’s Reed said speculation around the true detail of the plans and the claim the livestock industry would become self-regulating, were untrue.

In a statement, the BPC said the law and enforcement of animal welfare regulations “were always going to remain with Defra”. It added that the new policy meant welfare guidance supporting the legislation, “would have been jointly-owned by industry and government to ensure that they were kept up to date with legislation, industry practice and research”.

The BPC had “supported the move towards jointly-owned guidance and we have contributed a significant amount of resource to this piece of work and are frustrated that it has been repealed before we were able to publish the content”, added Reed.

“By revoking its decision, Defra is walking away from an opportunity to ensure welfare guidance is kept up to date with the latest research using industry expertise.”

Defra would now “draw more closely on the expertise of the farming industry to ensure our welfare codes reflect the very latest scientific and veterinary developments”, said a spokesman.

“We have given the matter further consideration and believe we can achieve this objective by retaining the existing statutory codes,” he added. “The work of the farming industry has been invaluable and we will continue to work with them to ensure our guidance is updated to best help them to comply with our high welfare standards.”

The NFU said Defra’s u-turn seta dangerous precedent for both government and the food industry.

“Reversing considerable efforts with the industry to replace older, out-of-date guidance in the face of sensationalist pressure from campaigning groups undermines both government rationale and the importance of an up-to-date animal welfare code.,” said NFU deputy president Minette Batters.

“The NFU, alongside other farming organisations, has been strengthening this guidance with scientific evidence, making it relevant to farming practices today,” she added. “The guidance is one of the key tools farmers can refer to when health planning for their herd or flock and to disregard such an important resource shows little understanding of its value.”