free range chickens© Tim Scrivener

The RSPCA has put off plans to introduce “unworkable” changes to Freedom Food standards after scores of free-range producers threatened to quit.

Instead the charity has agreed to carry out further consultation with the industry before making a decision. 

The changes, which angered producers, included installing raised perches with 15cm of space for each bird in new houses and the phased introduction of space in existing sheds.

A Bfrepa cost projection (see table, below) suggested an average 16,000-bird unit would be forced to pay £15,000 to make the changes.

See also: Free-range perching challenge dropped by EU 

In total, the changes would affect 20 million birds at a cost to the sector in excess of £10m, Bfrepa calculated.

The organisation’s chief executive Robert Gooch said he had been inundated with calls and emails from concerned producers who said that even the revised changes were “unworkable”.

Mr Gooch said he was “shocked at the anger and frustration” expressed by scores of members – the majority of whom favoured ditching Freedom Food standards altogether.

Members were also riled by what they saw as the RSPCA’s failure to properly consult the industry. 

The RSPCA claimed that it had followed procedure by holding meetings of its Standards Technical Advisory Group early in 2016 which included Bfrepa members.

But, although the producers involved were Bfrepa members, they were present in a separate capacity and not there to represent the organisation’s interests.

When the new rules were unveiled in July many producers were caught completely unaware, sparking claims that the changes had been brought in by stealth.

Rule change costs

No of birds 16,000
Length required (m) 1,600
Cost/m £9
Total cost £15,000
Cost/bird £0.93

But, after a meeting with Bfrepa, NFU and BEIC on 20 September, the RSPCA agreed to think again and postponed its plan.

The charity refused to comment on the meeting but issued a short statement:

“Following a positive discussion, it was agreed that further consultation with the industry to better understand these concerns should take place.

“The RSPCA has agreed to postpone the introduction of the new standards, pending this consultation, and will write to its members to advise them of this delay,” the statement said.

Perching concerns

In response, Bfrepa said it was pleased with the postponement.

“The decision has been taken to consult further with the laying hen industry after a number of concerns were aired by free-range egg producers,” a spokesman said.

“BFREPA highlighted the proposed requirement to introduce raised perching for hens as a key concern for its membership.

“The organisation will now work with the RSPCA to ensure a full understanding of the issue and how it impacts on free-range egg producers,” the spokesman said.

Myles Thomas, Bfrepa chairman, added: “Discussions have been positive and we look forward to further consultation with the organisation to provide a better understanding of the concerns our members have raised.

“To this end we are proposing that Bfrepa needs to be represented formally on the RSPCA Standards Technical Advisory Group so that we can be consulted regularly on changes to the standards.”

Timeline: Rule change row

2015 – Freedom Food begins review of existing standard 
Standard states that although 15cm of perch space per bird is required, slatted flooring can count towards this.

July 2016 – First rule change published
RSPCA said it would impose a rule stating housing should provide 8cm/bird of raised perch by October 2017 with all new or refurbished units providing 15cm/bird of raised perches by October 2017.

August 2016 – RSPCA shelves initial change
Industry bodies said October 2017 deadline left no time for producers – who were about to bring in flocks for a 72-week cycle – to make major structural changes to housing.

Late August 2016 – Revised proposal issued
RSPCA proposed allowing more time to make the changes. The requirement to provide 8cm/bird of perch space would apply only to flocks placed after 1 April 2017, increasing to 10cm per bird in subsequent flocks. New builds would still be required to provide 15cm/bird of perch space by October 2017.

September – RSPCA delays changes
The charity puts off plans after discussions with Bfrepa, BEIC and NFU.
Bfrepa claims it had not been formally consulted and pushes for seat on Standards Technical Advisory Group