The Following is
the text of a letter, dated 25 October 2000, to Mr Elliot Morley MP
concerning broiler leg health.
you and I agreed following your letter to me of 23rd May, I
am writing to let you know the outcome of the Councils discussion
last week on the complex issue of broiler leg health.
I should start by briefly recalling the relevant history. In is 1992 report
on the welfare of broilers, FAWC declared the level of leg problems to
be unacceptable and considered it the industrys responsibility to
achieve a significant reduction in the number and severity of leg problems.
The British Chicken Association, representing the broiler industry, accepted
this challenge by establishing in 1993 a wide-scale survey of broiler
production companies to demonstrate that progress was being made, as reflected
in the "gait scores" recorded on numerous samples of birds over
a five-year period. In the event the industry survey was one of the largest
of its kind with some 25,000 birds from nearly 200 cohorts gait scored
in total. The study was finally completed in June 2000 and the five successive
datasets that had been gathered were subjected to a brief independent
statistical analysis. Representatives of the industry presented their
findings to the FAWC Poultry Issues Working Group in July where a full
discussion took place.
Councils consideration of the matter on 12th October we recognised
at the outset that the industry deserves credit for accepting its central
role in improving broiler welfare, and in carrying the study through
to completion in a period of considerable economic and structural adjustment.
The 1992 FAWC report has caused the industry to focus attention on the
leg health problem, and it claims to have pursued a wide range of genetic,
nutritional, housing and management changes designed to improve the situation.
the light of this, we are severely disappointed to note that the survey
findings, as presented, provide no convincing evidence that measurable
improvements in leg health have been achieved over the seven years of
the study. (There are small numerical reductions in the overall average
percentage of the unacceptable gait scores, but the independent
analysis has shown these not to be statistically significant.) This is
difficult to explain given the industrys efforts directed at the
problem. It is clearly not sufficient merely to accept that the situation
has not got any worse.
aims to draw its conclusions on the basis of scientific data and empirical
evidence, and we believe the industry survey might have much more useful
information to reveal. The large amount of data collected shows considerable
variation in gait scores between different farms, and from years to year,
but the results have been presented only in the summary form of overall
industry averages for each year. We feel it imperative that the industry
should undertake a full analysis of its dataset, the variation within
it examined, and its underlying reasons explored. Furthermore, the
analysis deserves to be published so that all interested parties can
critically assess its conclusions. It could be an important finding of
the survey that some farms consistently succeed in achieving significantly
lower gait scores that others. This should enable successful best practice
to be identified and the information passed on to producers with a higher
incidence and severity of leg problems. This was an objective originally
declared when the study was initiated, and could be a valuable contribution
to improvement in the industry.
further objective of the study originally was to undertake post-mortem
examination of severely lame birds, but this practice was discounted early
in the study and so unfortunately there is no information to allow poor
gait scores to be related to their underlying causes. It could be, as
some have suggested, that the pathology of leg weakness has changed over
the years, and there is a clear need to review the evidence in this area.
industry representatives have emphasised what they consider to be the
low average incidence of leg problems in their survey, which contrasts
markedly with far higher figures reported by Bristol University researchers,
the recent study in Denmark and the observations of FAWC in 1992. The
existence of these conflicting figures inevitably creates confusion and
hampers an informed debate on the way ahead. Because it would assess the
sampling frame and characteristics of the data recorded, the full statistical
analysis of the industry survey we have asked for should cast more light
on this aspect of its results.
the continuing uncertainty highlights the urgent need for a definitive
study on the current state of leg health in UK broiler production.
We would therefore urge you to immediately initiate (with a view to obtaining
results over the next 9-12 months) a well-founded survey of broiler production
units. If it is to gain universal credibility, this needs to be based
on a fully representative sample drawn from the entire population of units
according to relevant statistical criteria, and to be undertaken by independent
study could draw on existing methods for measuring leg problems, including
gait scores but also abattoir examination of leg pathology, recording
of other information relating to bird welfare (ascites, malformations,
etc) and relating these observations to housing, management and other
production conditions in the survey units. Until this work is done, and
the results effectively applied, there will remain widespread discomfort,
both in FAWC and within the wider public, concerning this fundamental
aspect of the welfare of the broiler chicken.
the meantime, we believe there is a need to change the current perception
of, and response to, broiler leg problems within the welfare enforcement
framework. Application of welfare codes should be rigorously pursued
through inspections, and existing legislation should be effectively enforced
on farms, in transport and at slaughterhouses. This might encourage poultry
producers to slaughter birds a few days earlier (at a lighter weight)
which could markedly reduce the occurrence of leg health problems. Retailers
must also be made fully aware of the welfare implications of their demand
for birds at the current marketed weights and encouraged to seek the benefits
they could claim from providing consumers with slightly lighter/younger
birds. I hope you would be ready to join me in seeking opportunities to
press this point.
conclusion, I can only reinforce the concern first expressed in 1992 over
the real welfare challenge of lameness in broilers. In this respect it
is not the sample numerical level of incidence averaged across the whole
industry that is relevant. As with all welfare problems, it is the instances
where unacceptable standards are occurring that are the concern, and we
believe these incidences are still far too common in relation to broiler
leg health. Immediate action must be taken to identify these unacceptable
situations, their causes examined and actions initiated to ensure they
order to ensure that our proposals can be moved forward in a constructive
fashion, I propose a brief period of grace to permit an action plan to
be developed before the recommendations in this letter are made public.
Nevertheless, Council is anxious to make our views known openly, and we
therefore propose to publish this letter on our website in mid-December.
I trust this will allow time for all concerned to contribute to this action
Since communicating our recommendations to Mr Morley we have held discussions
both with the poultry industry and with MAFF to understand how they propose
to implement the actions identified by us. We summarise our understanding
of their responses as follows:
The industry, through
BPMF, has confirmed that the survey data will be independently and comprehensively
analysed by a Professor of veterinary epidemiology and his analysis
will be published. In addition, the industry has readily agreed to co-operate
with future studies of leg weakness which may arise from our recommendations,
the outlines of which are already being discussed.
We have been assured
that MAFF will be positively addressing enforcement of welfare codes
and current regulations through targeting farms where problems exist.
They will draw on data from flock records to effectively identify such
MAFF also made a
proposal to conduct a major case control study, which will aim to identify
the factors which tend to be associated with flocks which experience
leg weakness problems. Also the factors which are associated with flocks
with good leg health. This should lead to recommendations of best practice,
which might rapidly lead to benefits. We endorse this study proposal
and strongly recommend that it should be supported and funded.