Ever wondered what DEFRA’s views are on key poultry issues such as labelling, delaying the cage ban or regulation costs?  Here’s what John Bourne, DEFRA’s head of livestock division, told the recent 2007 BEIC/NFU National Egg Conference in Leicestershire. 

Review of the laying hen directive
“I know that the delay is complicating your investment decisions, you’ve made that point to the commission – as I’m sure have your representatives.  But the law does stand that conventional cages will be banned by 2012 unless the EU agrees to change it.  My crystal ball is pretty opaque on that one.  But if you ask me personally, I think it is unlikely that the commission will reverse the decision that they initially put forward or provide a general extension.  It will argue that the industry across Europe has had plenty of time to prepare.  But I haven’t asked or discussed this with any ministers.  My guess is that ministers are reluctant to take a different view.”

WTO negotiations
“Realistically, I can not give you a commitment that we will succeed in getting eggs seen as a sensitive product or that government necessarily will push for it because I think the bigger picture is that the UK government doesn’t like sensitive products particularly.  It’s willing to go down that route if it thinks it’s completely necessary but at this stage it’s too early in the negotiations.  I personally believe that the labelling approach is the way to help you to get recognition from the consumer that higher welfare is worth paying for.”     

Regulation costs
“Government sets the rules in which you operate.  It has a duty to ensure that regulatory burdens are proportionate.  And we in DEFRA recognise the cost that unnecessary red tape imposes and are committed to reducing the burden we impose by 25% by 2010.  That’s worth 30m to the farming community.”

“No one is seriously arguing that there should not be regulation that manages the risk of the environment.  The issue has been one of enforcement costs.  The Environment Agency has worked hard to streamline the application process and lower the cost.  While I’m sure you are still not happy about it, it is true that costs have come down significantly.”

Animal disease costs
“I’ve spoken about government’s role in regulation, in setting the framework for operation, and your role in innovating, marketing and differentiating your product to add value.  These complimentary roles are at the heart of the costs and responsibility sharing agenda on animal disease. 

“This says that the prescriptive, complex regulations that are built up around animal disease, which impose considerable cost upon the tax payer, are inflexible and fail to align cost with responsibility.  And this misalignment can lead to a failure in managing risks.  It’s not just about offloading costs onto the industry.  It’s about saying if we align cost and responsibility so that risk is managed effectively by those who are best placed to make those decisions, costs will be decreased for everyone – you and us.  It does make the industry play a bigger role in decision making and government play a smaller role.”  

Planning permission
“We know that it’s an issue and there is now a team in DEFRA looking at – not specifically planning and agriculture – but looking at how we use land in Britain. Looking at what is our hierarchy of priorities of use of land and how we manage it.  That will encompass planning rules.”

 “I don’t think it’s practical to impose country of origin labelling on those [processed and more complex foods] through regulation.  If consumers demand to know where the eggs in particular products come from then retailers will want to meet that demand.  One issue is – can you persuade the consumer that your eggs are worth demanding even when they are part of a processed product.”

Carbon emissions
“The goal of carbon labelling may still seem a little way in the future.  But the climate change bill has been published in draft.  David Milliband set an aspiration that it will become law in about a year’s time.  It sets a 60% target for reduction in carbon dioxide by 2050.

“It also provides powers to take measures to deliver those targets.  Agriculture is a major contributor to green house gas emission.  Some form of, for example, emission trading scheme may not be that far off.  If it does you’ll have to innovate to reduce your emissions and maximise the value of your product.”