RSPCA Freedom Food has given the green light for free range producers to raise their stocking densities in line with the change to the Lion code made at the start of this year.
It is welcome news for the free range sector, which has been pressing hard for permission from Freedom Food to raise the range stocking density from 1000 birds/ha to the new Lion standard of 2000/ha. EU regulations allow up to 2500/ha.
The industry believes there is an urgent need to expand free range production to meet demand when the cage ban arrives in January 2012. Lion Eggs believes it is a quicker process to get planning permission to add buildings to an existing unit than starting from scratch for a new site, so production can be boosted in the shorter term.
A survey carried out by British Free Range Egg Producers (BFREPA) in the summer had shown members would create up to 640,000 extra bird places if the rules were changed. Out of 65 members who responded, 54 said they wanted to expand.
However, free range producers have, until now, been stalled by the refusal of the RSPCA to agree the higher densities on the grounds of welfare concerns. Most supermarket eggs belong to the Freedom Food scheme.
The RSPCA has spent the last nine months reviewing the potential impact on bird welfare, including visits to units in the UK and France already stocked at the higher rate.
Announcing its decision, the RSPCA said: “This decision will help meet the rising demand for British free-range eggs.
“If there is a shortfall in British eggs, then experience indicates that overseas produced eggs (which are often produced under lower welfare standards) would be imported to fill the gap.
“As the vast majority of free-range laying hen units in the UK are Freedom Food approved, and therefore inspected to RSPCA standards, it was vital that the RSPCA worked towards finding a solution to this situation that was based on both sound science and professional expertise.
However, there are a number of conditions. These include a requirement that 5% of the total range area should be provided with natural cover, and that dedicated areas should be provided for behavioural patterns such as perching and dust bathing.
Producers should also develop a range management plan and should pay further attention to the area immediately outside the pop holes, said the RSPCA.
BFREPA vice chairman John Retson said the Association welcomed the move. “Many might be disappointed at the 5% cover, as BFREPA was working hard to achieve 2%. We were particularly concerned for producers on rented land whose right to plant trees may be restricted.”
However, the fact that the RSPCA would allow natural cover to include shrubs would go some way to overcoming this, he said.
“We certainly do not want producers to compromise on bird welfare issues. We do not believe the increase in stocking density will adversely affect bird welfare. If we had ever suspected welfare would be affected, we would not have supported the increase.”
Mr Retson added that stocking at 2000 birds/ha will not be suitable for all producers because of business and geographical reasons.
“But where it is suitable, it will help overcome the predicted shortage of free range eggs come 2012. Some units could be converted to higher stocking densities without planning permission becoming an issue.”