The RSPCA has opened up an offensive to forestall DEFRA from raising the stocking densities for broilers in the UK in line with the new EU welfare Directive.

The charity claims that DEFRA is currently considering the adoption for 2010 of the new EU welfare rules, which the RSPCA says includes raising stocking densities from a typical industry figure of 19 birds/sq m, under Assured Chicken Production, to up to 21 birds.

“The RSPCA believes this is a retrograde step that would have significant impact on their welfare,” said Dr Marc Cooper, RSPCA senior farm animal scientist.

The RSPCA has launched an online campaign called “Quash the Squash” to highlight this issue, and is urging consumers to sign its e-petition, available online.

Other animal welfare charities, the World Society of the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Compassion in World Farming are also backing the RSPCA’s campaign.

The industry has been quick to fight back, saying that welfare indicators such as daily mortality rates and leg and foot health, which were all issues highlighted by welfare groups like the RSPCA, would be monitored and recorded by DEFRA vets and farmers as part of the Directive.

NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns explained: “The Directive allows producers to stock at between 33kg/sq m to 39kg/sq m if certain welfare indicators are measured and shown not to be compromised. This can be increased to 42kg/sq m if results of welfare monitoring for the previous seven cycles of birds meet Directive standards.

“Should the results of this monitoring show bird welfare is lacking, producers can be prevented from stocking above 33kg/sq m.

“The Broiler Welfare Directive is outcome-based legislation and allows modern, efficient farms with skilled stockmen to operate to higher stocking rates if they can demonstrate bird welfare is not compromised.

“The UK government has pledged to cut red tape for industry, and what the RSPCA is proposing is simple gold-plating of EU legislation.”