Hybrid governance and welfare standards for broilers

According to a recent study, a minority of animals in the UK and Australia are produced to the legal standards, and as for most birds, private standards dominate. Photo: Canva
According to a recent study, a minority of animals in the UK and Australia are produced to the legal standards, and as for most birds, private standards dominate. Photo: Canva

Research suggests that private farm assurance schemes produce slow and incremental improvements in broiler welfare standards but do not lead to dynamic and entrepreneurial changes often promoted.

The study, led by Australian scientists at the University of Sydney, examined the welfare standards that govern the lives of broilers in both Australia and the United Kingdom. While broilers are subject to a wide range of welfare interventions, the research focused on the development and implications of the most significant “private” standards which are the key determinants of meat chicken welfare – the RSCPA Approved Farming Scheme in Australia and the UK’s Red Tractor Assurance Scheme.

Community concerns and food safety

The study found that while the jurisdictions appeared to have a similar regime that favours private regulation, differences in the origins and governance of the systems could be identified, offering insights into the use of hybrid regulation in areas associated with bird welfare.

The similarities and differences in these countries point to the importance of individual relationships, as well as supply chain power in the adoption of private standards as a response to comparatively unstructured community concerns about welfare in Australia and food safety in the United Kingdom, the report says.

Trade considerations

Among the differences, for example, are that Australia is considerably less exposed to international trade in chicken meat. This has an important impact on standards setting and the position of firms in these markets. The UK’s market integration in Europe places constraints on the expenditure UK broiler producers are willing to spend on higher welfare for animals being used as undifferentiated commodities – as opposed to those branded and purchased on their higher welfare treatment.

Conversely, the lack of international competition for Australian domestic sales produces a sector with greater commercial certainties, and fewer sources of competition, including for alternative welfare standards.

Private standards dominate

The authors say that in practice, the number of animals that live and die strictly according to the treatment specified in respective legislated codes is limited. Only a minority of animals in each nation are produced to the legal standards, and as for most birds, private standards dominate. These either meet or exceed the legislated minimum. Therefore, the public codes represent a welfare “floor” which governs the lives of a minority of chickens produced for meat.

Private standards can include elements excluded from public codes, such as “required” rather than “recommended” perching options for birds as well as differences in the settings of common elements in public and private standards, such as the question of stocking density that controls the amount of space each bird is assigned.

Public code revisions slow

In the UK, each nation has its Animal Welfare Act with Defra being the enforcement agency for most animal welfare legislation. Policy is advised by an expert panel, the Animal Welfare Committee, which also advised the administrations in Scotland and Wales. The UK has different meat chicken codes for each nation, with minor variations. The public codes for England and Wales were last updated in 2018, while in Northern Ireland it hasn’t been updated since 2012 and Scotland 2019.

The slowness of public code revision reveals a flaw in the argument that delegated legislation enables standard setting which is significantly more response to changing technical understandings. However, a lack of actual legislation focusing on technical matters makes comparisons impossible. The slow pace of changes negates policy justifications for the use of delegated codes, while also failing to recognise the huge technological changes taking place within the industry and welfare science.


The inclusion of welfare issues in UK farm assurance schemes served as an extension of the policymaking capacity and network strength of the Red Tractor scheme but forestalled the scope for entrepreneurialism from animal advocacy NGOs to promote their own higher standards. The RSPCA UK’s private standard for chicken meat producers has, while providing higher welfare requirements than Red Tractor, had more limited take-up due to the existence of a preferred industry approach – preferred both in terms of the ability to market higher welfare outcomes at a lower cost to industry, but also through industry control over the standards-making process and as a means to avoid standards proliferation by retailers, which would add complexity.

While hybridity as a form of new public governance can be seen to facilitate innovative and varied responses to state devolution, the article concludes the overarching anthropocentrism of policymakers and the policy sciences explains a closed, increment and conservative form of practice in this area.

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Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist
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