ANALYSIS - The UK's poultry industry body has explained the thinking behind the latest standards for duck production, following allegations from an animal charity that they mean a backward step in animal welfare terms, particularly in respect of the provision of water.
Like all farm animals, ducks reared commercially indoors in the UK must have access to water for drinking but they also need to be able to toss water onto their heads and feathers. This requirement means that there is less standardisation across the duck industry in terms of the equipment provided for drinking and this essential bathing than, for example, for broiler production.
For ducks, drinking water is usually provided by nipple drinkers or troughs; larger troughs or baths offer the birds the opportunity to preen their feathers and keep their eyes and nostrils clean and healthy.
Assurance schemes give more detailed specifications on how this water is provided but the launch of a new scheme in the UK prompted a public debate between the national industry's organisation and an animal charity regarding the equipment required for the provision of water for commercially reared ducks as well as the need for bedding.
In September, the British Poultry Council (BPC) announced that the Duck Assurance Scheme (DAS), which was launched in 2010, is to become a partner of Red Tractor Assurance, the country's umbrella assurance scheme that covers farmed animals.
Around the same time, one of the country's animal charities, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), launched a campaign criticising commercial duck production methods.
The RSPCA campaign followed a poll, which revealed that eight out of 10 people are 'appalled' that farmed duck can be reared without bathing water and think it should be illegal.
As more ducks are being farmed in the UK and RSPCA alleged welfare has taken a backward step with millions of ducks being deprived of the very basics like bathing water, the Society launched its 'Like a duck to water' campaign to improve conditions for British ducks.
The poll for the RSPCA revealed that more than four out of five of those polled were 'appalled' that by law farmed ducks may never get access to bathing water and agreed that supermarkets should only sell duck meat from farms that provide bathing water.
In response, the British Poultry Council (BPC) stated that the RSPCA was making incorrect claims about the actual rearing standards for British ducks and that it is seriously misleading the public in its attempt to promote its own Freedom Foods brand.
BPC clarified that the DAS for ducks reared indoors and the RSPCA Freedom Foods scheme both require the ducks to have access to open water to be able to dip their heads under, to preen and to allow the ducks to toss water onto their feathers for conditioning. This bathing is necessary for the ducks' general health and particularly for good eye and nostril condition.
DAS standards also specify that where drinking water is provided by nipple drinkers, additional bathing water must be provided in the form of troughs, wide-channel type bell drinkers, baths or showers.
According to the BPC, RSPCA standards do not mention bathing or any requirement for full body access to water but give minimum measurements for troughs, which provide both drinking and bathing water.
BPC said that ducks reared in the UK are all provided with fresh litter as bedding and this is topped up on a daily basis. Nipple drinkers can be used for provision of clean drinking water but sufficient open water sources must also be provided for the bathing requirements. Separate nipple drinkers have the advantages that the drinking water remains clean and are less likely to making the bedding wet.
There is no scientific evidence that provision of windows is a welfare benefit to the ducks, says BPC, but the DAS Technical Advisory Group is considering the need for research on this topic.
British duck companies have worked closely with welfare researchers at Oxford and Cambridge universities, the RSPCA and Defra on the water preferences of ducks. DAS standards reflect the published findings of this research and the experience of the duck producers.
Duck companies have taken on the findings of scientific research, says BPC, and shoppers can be assured that the high standards required by the DAS properly provide for the health and welfare needs of ducks reared in the UK.
Peter Bradnock, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council said: "Great research advances have been made by the duck industry for the development of new facilities to ensure ducks are given the best possible growing conditions that fulfil all their health and welfare needs.
"This is an exciting time for the duck industry with more people choosing to eat duck. Consumers can be assured the ducks they choose have been reared to strict animal health and welfare standards, in line with Red Tractor Assurance standards."
The image for this item was kindly provided by Lubing Maschinenfabrik.