Fears have again been raised about Freedom Food's attitude to the government badger cull following a proposed change to the RSPCA assurance scheme's terms and conditions for free range egg producers.
Concerns were first highlighted at the annual conference of the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA) in 2015.
A member told delegates that he had been threatened with suspension from the scheme - which operates under the name RSPCA Assured - if he took part in the cull.
Other free range egg producers said they had received the same threat.
At the time, Freedom Food confirmed the position in a statement, saying: “The RSPCA does not consider culling to be in any way justified on the grounds of protecting farm animals from harm and that badgers will suffer as a result of the cull.
“Consequently any Freedom Food farm participating in the cull would be in breach of RSPCA welfare standards and their agreement with Freedom Food.”
Free range egg producers also received letters outlining the threat of suspension.
Now, Freedom Food has announced changes in conditions for poultry scheme members.
One change is the addition of a clause, which reads: “The Business or Authorised User shall within 5 working days, contact RSPCA Assured by telephone or by email to inform the scheme of any of the following, as applicable.
“Any participation or consideration of participation in a government led cull of wild animals together with relevant written documentation to demonstrate compliance with RSPCA welfare standards.”
Both BFREPA and the NFU have spoken to Freedom Food to raise their fears about the changes to the terms and conditions.
The association's CEO, Robert Gooch said: “We are very concerned and we had a meeting with RSPCA recently to discuss the issue. We also discussed pop hole heights - something else that concerns us.”
On the cull clause, he said: “We were assured that the changes to terms and conditions would have no impact on any certification process with producers.
“They said the requirement was only so they were aware of what was happening on farm. Freedom Food also say they should be informed if activists have broken in.
“Again, they said this would not affect certification.”
Mr Gooch said that a producer's range could be excluded - if the range was not included in the cull area, Freedom Food would not need to be informed.
This could help some farmers, he said. He added that the NFU was looking at the legal implications of the changed terms and conditions with lawyers.
The NFU issued a statement on its site saying: “The NFU has expressed its concerns and reservations to RSPCA Assured, asking how this relates to the welfare of laying hens.
“Accordingly, the NFU feels this requirement is unwarranted and unnecessary. We are concerned that this is extremely sensitive information that they are asking for,” said the NFU.
The union said it had held a conference call with RSPCA Assured head of certification Neil Scott and head of farming Joe Bailey.
Freedom Food responded: “We have written to the NFU explaining that RSPCA Assured and the RSPCA are very aware of the devastating effect diseases, such as bovine TB, can have on farmers, their animals and their livelihoods
“As a farm assurance scheme, and an animal welfare charity, we feel we have a responsibility to be aware of which members are taking part in government-led culls.
“The public - who support our members’ dedication to farm animal welfare and buy RSPCA Assured products - also expect us to be aware.
“Therefore the new clause has been introduced as a positive measure to build improved communication and transparency between RSPCA Assured and its members, so that we can better help and support them when facing challenging issues.
“Ensure members meet the RSPCA standards for wild animal control, and give them the opportunity to discuss these standards with us.
“Help us better communicate our position on this issue to the public, media or other stakeholders when asked, and if appropriate.”
It reassured members that taking part in a cull will not negatively impact their RSPCA Assured certification, providing the RSPCA standards are fully implemented.
“We will not share information on individual members taking part in a cull with anyone outside of the RSPCA and RSPCA Assured - to do so would be a breach of our data protection obligations, which we take very seriously.
“We will however, if questioned about a particular farm, with their express permission confirm they are taking part in a cull and that they are meeting the RSPCA standards,” Freedom Food said.