Free-range egg producers are the latest group to criticise DEFRA’s Responsibility and Cost Sharing proposals, saying that it needed to get its own accounting in order before seeking to impose charges for disease control.

The government proposals, revealed in a consultation last month, would see poultry producers having to pay an animal health levy of 4p a bird place and taking out insurance against future disease outbreaks.

Starting in 2012 at the earliest, the annual levy would cover the cost of disease surveillance and research. The insurance would then pay half the cost of any outbreak, with the remainder met by the government.

A key part of the proposals is the creation of an independent board to take decisions on animal health. The board will be responsible for dealing with exotic disease outbreaks, policy on endemic diseases and advising on payment rates for animals culled as part of disease control.

However, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association has called on “DEFRA to put its own house in order before seeking to impose charges on farmers to pay for disease control.”

BFREPA chairman Tom Vesey (pictured) and free-range egg producer based in Monmouthshire said he did not object in principle to cost sharing, provided that there was some control over the way it was handled.

“We know how cavalier DEFRA is with money and it seems vital that we should have some control, since it is our money that will be spent,” he said.

“What we don’t want is for DEFRA to be the sole arbiter. What a mess they made of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak and the subsequent one caused by themselves at Pirbright [Institue of Animal Health] and, of course, the total shambles of the so-called bovine TB control programme.”

He added: “It is vital that we press for a truly independent body to administer animal health – one on which farmers must sit and have a voice, together with retailers and food industry processors, for everyone is affected.”

His criticisms mirror those made by John Bowler, managing director of Derbyshire’s John Bowler Eggs and the NFU.