In a dramatic close to the year, the much-heralded EU Directive on broiler welfare was unexpectedly defeated at a high level meeting of member state officials in December, only days before it was due to be ratified by the Council of Ministers.

It means that prospects of achieving a common set of welfare standards for broilers across the EU have evaporated in the short term, unless the Directive can be quickly resurrected. States that opposed the Directive were France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Romania stated that it would oppose the Directive when it joins the EU.

The new Directive was to be the first to specifically lay down production standards for broilers in the EU, and was scheduled to come into effect in 2012. At its heart were maximum stocking densities for flocks, along with a system of monitoring welfare indicators at the processing plant using a “scoring” system. Growers with high scores would be allowed to use the higher stocking densities.

Opposition had been expected at last month’s meeting, and to try and reach agreement the outgoing Finnish presidency had already removed any reference to the date at which the stocking densities would be enforced.

The German presidency now takes over, but despite the country’s green credentials, it is thought to be unlikely to want to pursue a potentially hopeless cause.

The UK Government expressed its “dismay” that a small number of countries had blocked progress. Ben Bradshaw, Animal Welfare Minister, said: “We have worked very hard over more than two years on these proposals.

“They were supported by most EU states, animal welfare groups and the UK broiler industry – which generally has high standards and wants to see a level playing field across the EU.

“We will try to persuade the forthcoming German Presidency of the EU to return to this issue, but I am not optimistic that we will see a satisfactory solution soon,” he said.

The shock defeat has disappointed welfarists and industry figures alike. “The collapse of the broiler welfare proposals is disappointing given that the principle of the Directive is to harmonise standards across the Community,” said NFU chief poultry adviser Maria Ball.

“Our members want a level playing field with regards to the produce in the EU. We have been working on the proposals with the British Poultry Council for some time now.”

At the BPC, cheif executive Peter Bradnock, said the collapse of the talks was “a bit of a surprise and a real shame”. “We have been working very hard to make the proposals practical, and were fulwly supportive of the final document. After all the consensus building between the stakeholders in the UK such as ourselves, the NFU, the RSPCA and CIWF we felt we could all live with the proposals as they were.”

Most of the countries opposing were new member states, remarked Mr Bradnock. “Those retailers depending on cheap Polish chicken need to ask themselves, why are the eastern European states opposed? They are benefiting from intra-community trade without complying with the same standards in countries they are exporting to.”