The affordability of eggs and poultrymeat is more important for cash-strapped consumers in a recession than superior welfare standards, according to the chairman of the British Poultry Council.

Although enhanced welfare is a concern for consumers, the majority want poultry products to be affordable, said John Reed.

“Although we keep getting told that consumers want higher welfare standards, there is a difference between what people aspire to and what they can afford,” he told the NFU Cymru annual poultry conference at Builth Wells.

“The reality is that we are a consumer-led industry with no UK or European subsidies, so we produce what our customers want – and the bulk of the population wants affordable food.”

Mr Reed said there was a perception that “big is bad”, but he argued that bigger units could in fact be more “bird-friendly”, because there were more staff available for round-the-clock care. “We have to produce more from less. It is a very difficult argument and one that we have got to wrestle with.”

Poultry accounts for between 40% and 45% of all meat sales in the UK and demand continues to grow, although at a “modest” rate. Mr Reed warned producers that they needed to maintain their competitiveness in the face of high feed and labour costs.

“Feed prices are high everywhere, not just in the UK. Although we have been at a disadvantage in terms of labour costs, these are now rising at a much faster rate in other countries,” he said.

Poland represented the biggest threat to the UK poultry industry, he predicted, and Germany, once a net importer, had invested heavily to increase its production levels. “There is potential for more poultry to come into the UK from central and eastern Europe,” warned Mr Reed.