THE COUNTRY‘s two leading organic certification bodies were in open conflict last month after DEFRA made the unexpected decision to extend the current derogation on flock sizes and stocking densities.

The disagreement spilled over to a chat show on Radio 2 where the issue became sidetracked into a criticism of free range standards in general by members of the public who phoned in.

Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G), which claims to represent 65% of the organic poultry sector in the UK, is sticking by its support for farming minister Ben Bradshaw, insisting his decision helped to protect the UK poultry industry.

But the Soil Association, which thought it had the issue settled on the early introduction of tighter standards, is incensed about the U-turn and has gone on the offensive, accusing the minister of “ignoring the wishes of consumers, the views of his own advisers, and betraying the public’s trust in organic standards”.

The spat centres around the derogation that was due to end in August 2005, which would have forced UK producers to cut their flock sizes from a maximum of 12,000 down to the new level of 3,000.

By contrast, the rest of Europe is not required to do the same until 2010.

As reported in last month‘s Poultry World, Ben Bradshaw surprised everyone on both sides of the argument by agreeing to extend the derogation at the eleventh hour in line with the rest of Europe.

It was a move backed by the British Egg industry Council and the Free Range Egg Producers Association, among others.

The Soil Association has now written to Mr Bradshaw demanding an explanation, and urging him to “reconsider this ill-advised decision”.

The Association already sets tighter standards than those which are due to come into force in 2010: it will only certify farms with a flock size of 2,000 laying birds (or 1,000 meat birds) and recommends a flock size of just 500 birds. It wants to see moves to smaller flock sizes in the longer term.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: “The decision will cause economic hardship to many poultry producers working to achieve high standards of production in line with consumer expectations.

“The intensive poultry industry will be rewarded,” he claimed, “who, we fear, had no intention of complying with EU law.”

The Soil Association says that small flock sizes “are vital” to help avoid welfare problems such as feather pecking, and to allow access to pasture: “Experts believe that that with large flocks, not all birds will be able to get outside.”

It has presented ‘new research‘ that shows only 4% of organic consumers think that flocks of up to 12,000 birds should be allowed, while 64% think that flock size should be 2,000 birds or less.

In addition, 82% of those polled said that no more than six birds should be allowed per square metre of house, compared with 12 under the derogation.

However, no details were given of the questions asked and consumers will always tend to choose the higher standards.

At Organic Farmers & Growers, business manager Richard Jacobs strongly defended his organisation’s position on the organic standards.

“We do not believe the consumer interest is being harmed, because the organic system is by default rigorous and ethical, and consumers can trust that.

“No-one should be misled into believing that we are less concerned with welfare standards than anyone else. Welfare is at the heart of the organic system.

“What we are saying is that there has to be a sensible, practical approach to bringing the UK into line with Europe.

“Although we are sensitive to the fact that some producers are already working to the new lower levels, we applaud the minister‘s decision to give the UK organic poultry industry the breathing space it needs to be fully prepared for the new standards.”

He pointed out that the vast majority of OF&G licensed flocks were at 9,000 birds or less.

Mr Jacobs added: “The Soil Association is claiming that 2,000 birds per house is automatically more welfare friendly. We are not aware of any evidence to support that.

They have cited the example of bullying among the birds, but whether you have 10,000 birds in a house or a 500 bird house, bullying could be just as much an issue.

“Good welfare is overwhelmingly a matter of good husbandry, and high welfare standards are very much in the best commercial interests of the producer. If they lose birds to bullying and pecking it will cost them money.”