Poultry producers in England and Wales should be given the chance to veto whether their details currently held on the GB Poultry Register should be used for wider purposes, including an enforcement role, says the NFU.

Last month, DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly Government announced that following consultation with the industry, they are to use details on the register for a raft of other purposes. These include management of other diseases, ad hoc surveys and in the planning of official farm visits.

But this has alarmed chief NFU poultry adviser, Robert Newbery. “This is not in the spirit of how it was originally sold at a time when avian flu first appeared and is certainly not how we would like to see it used. During the consultation, we said DEFRA should give them [on the register] the option to veto any change in use of their details on the register.

“The Register was originally set up in December 2005 in response to the increased threat of avian flu outbreaks. Poultry keepers with more than 50 birds are legally required to register and, up to now, the information has been only used for avian flu risk assessment, prevention and control.”

Of the new uses (see panel left), Mr Newbery’s main concern is using data for visits “related to legislation on veterinary medicines and animal welfare”.

“Basically, this is random on-farm checks, including veterinary medicine records.

“This turns the register into an enforcement tool. It will simply disenfranchise producers and could discourage them to inform DEFRA of any changes.”

His fear is that over time, the register will become less accurate, as fewer producers update their details. “And it certainly won’t encourage those with fewer than 50 birds to register, for which it is voluntary, not compulsory.”

The Countryside Alliance added its fears about “a major leak of privileged information” citing the government’s poor record on managing databases.

Its chief executive, Simon Hart, said: “The changes announced by Lord Rooker make a major leak of privileged information, something government departments appear to specialise in, a distinct possibility. We are extremely concerned that this information will be used for purposes other than that for which it was gathered. The very real threat posed by animal rights activists means that the information must be treated as highly confidential and not used for non-animal-disease related issues.”

DEFRA minister Jeff Rooker acknowledged the sensitivity of extending the use for the data and stressed that his government department took its responsibilities for the proper handling of personal data seriously.

“We will ensure that procedures and safeguards are in place to protect the personal data of poultry keepers and that these are consistent with the advice and recommendations from the report in June 2008 by the Cabinet Secretary on data handling in government and from the recently completed independent review on data sharing by Richard Thomas and Mark Walport.”

He added: “Poultry keepers stand to benefit from better joined-up working within government reducing the need to ask them for the same data on numerous occasions.”