EU rift on chicken rights

LUXEMBOURG – European Union plans to improve the unhappy lives of billions of chickens killed each year for dinner ran into a classic European north-south rift on Monday as governments clashed on welfare and hygiene standards. Chickens bred for their meat, known as broilers, are closely packed in large sheds in massive flocks of between 20,000 and 50,000 birds and reach slaughter weight in six to seven weeks. Nearly 46 billion such chickens are reared in the world every year, 5 billion of them in the European Union. Last year, the European Commission published a draft law setting out hygiene standards for the ammonia-ridden litter produced by the industry, rules for ventilation inside mostly windowless sheds and even lighting regulations for the sector. The most sensitive area is how many birds may be packed into a specific area, which is key to the profits of broiler farmers. Stocking densities vary widely across the EU. The European average is 40 kilograms of bird weight per square meter, and slightly higher in some countries like France and the Netherlands. But in Luxembourg, for example, the average is less than 20 kg. This was where national interests came to the fore during a debate by EU agriculture ministers over the Commission’s suggestion of 30 kg as a base standard but with leeway for intensive-rearing operations to raise this to 38 kg if welfare standards are met in areas like litter and ventilation. North-south divide A solid group of mostly northern EU states endorsed the Commission’s plan for a maximum stocking density to be set as soon as possible. These included Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden. Pitted against them were countries like Italy and Greece, which wanted higher base densities. Greece, for example, said there should be no «exceptional» upper limit and demanded a transition period of six years for changes to enter into force. EU officials described France’s position as «clearly reticent,» saying maximum bird densities should not be decided until the Commission had carried out a full impact study. «The proposed stocking densities are already a compromise,» a Commission official told reporters. «But we could examine other possibilities under the Finnish (EU) presidency. They will pick up the discussion based on the conclusions today.» Finland will take over the rotating six-month EU presidency from Austria on July 1. Commission officials say the extra cost to broiler farmers due to its animal welfare proposals would be minimal, between 0.025 euros and 0.035 euros for each bird, whose overall cost at farm level was around 2.00 euros. At present, Europe has no specific laws to control the broiler trade. A few countries, like Sweden and Denmark, do have strict laws in place but most have none.