The United Kingdom egg industry may ask for a further delay to the introduction of the Government's intended ban on the use of beak trimming.
The ban, which was due to come into force at the beginning of 2011, was put off on the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) because of its concerns about feather pecking and cannibalism, although Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister who agreed to the delay, said the position would be reviewed again in 2015 with the aim of the ban being introduced in 2016.
He stressed that the Government was determined to see the practice of beak trimming ended.
But Mark Williams, the chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), has now said that the egg industry could press for the ban to be delayed again unless egg producers could be sure that birds would not injure each other without the use of beak trimming.
"Unless we get to a stage where there can be guarantees that birds will not injurious feather peck or cannibalise each other then we will be pressing for an extension on the ban - in other words it shouldn't come into place in 2016, it's too early. Otherwise the potential negative effects on bird welfare could be very severe," he said during a speech at the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) in November.
The British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA) has identified beak trimming as one of the biggest issues facing the free range egg sector at the moment.
Chairman John Retson appealed to producers to get behind trials being conducted by scientists at Bristol University.
The scientists, led by professor of animal welfare Christine Nicol, have been commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to gather evidence on whether laying birds can be kept in a reliably high standard of welfare without having their beaks trimmed.
John Retson said recently, "We should be giving this our full attention and support over the next three years to make sure you understand fully on each individual flock trial what the outcome really is." John even suggested that the egg industry should consider raising a small levy to compensate producers who may suffer high mortality rates as a result of taking part in the research.
BFREPA vice chairman Roger Gent has said he fears that trying to manage a flock without beak trimming could have severe consequences for the profitability of egg producers.
He said it was important that BFREPA members took part in the Bristol project to ensure that the true effects of not beak trimming laying birds were revealed.
It is understood that the target of Defra is to restrict the mortality rate to five per cent with birds that have not had their beaks trimmed. But it is thought that plans for the beak trimming ban will only be put off if the mortality rate is above nine per cent at end of lay.
"Defra seems to be saying that nine per cent mortality in free range is acceptable," said Roger. "I don't believe that nine per cent mortality is acceptable these days."
Mark Williams clearly believes there is still some way to go before it will be possible to manage flocks without beak trimming.
Along with other industry representatives, he has been active on the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG), which resumed its work following the Government decision to delay the introduction of the ban. As well as egg industry representatives, BTAG is made up of representatives of non-government organisations, as well as scientists and Defra officials.
"We have an issue as an industry," said Mark.
"The breeding companies are doing a fantastic job; they are looking at bird genetics, which some day, we believe, will obviate the need to beak trim birds. We don't want to do it. It costs the industry money. But, of course, we are certainly not there today and at the last sub group of the Beak Trimming Action Group one of our breeder representatives was kind enough to do a presentation to the group. He explained, after speaking to his breeding colleagues and genetecists, just what the issues are.
"I think it is very important that we continue to play our part in BTAG, and that means playing our part in the research that is currently taking place, but unless we get to a stage where there can be guarantees that birds will not injurious feather peck or cannibalise each other then we will be pressing for an extension on the ban - in other words it shouldn't come into place in 2016, it's too early. Otherwise the potential negative effects on bird welfare could be very severe.
Mark said that, for the egg industry, beak trimming was now the major policy issue it was facing. He said that under current legislation only infrared beak trimming was permitted, and even that was due to be banned in 2016 under current Government plans.
The scientific team at the University of Bristol, which has already done extensive research into feather pecking, is attempting through its current trials to bring together the results of the work it has done previously to provide egg producers with advice, practical support and a small amount of finance to fund things like enrichment.
Christine Nicol said that ADAS would also be involved in providing a detailed cost analysis so that farmers could see whether they were likely to lose or gain financially.
Christine said that her team had a list of about 40 different suggestions that could be adopted by egg producers to enable them to overcome the potential detrimental effects of not beak trimming.
Some of these suggestions would be suitable on certain farms but not on others. Advice would be tailored to a farm's individual circumstances.
When FAWC recommended delaying the introduction of the beak trimming ban it said that the ban should be deferred until it could be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that non-beak-trimmed laying hens could be managed without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself.
But Jim Paice said the egg industry should expect the ban to go ahead in 2016.
"We will be working with the industry and the Beak Trimming Action Group to achieve this, so I don’t want you to think 'well that’s five years away, we need not worry any more about it.' I think you should worry about it. I think the Beak Trimming Action Group really does need now to find a way forward."
Unless the science improves, the egg industry could well be asking for the ban to be delayed yet again.