The government is planning to scrap animal welfare guidance and devolve regulatory powers to the farming industry, it has emerged.
Under plans drawn up by Conservative ministers, extra powers will be given to the British Poultry Council next month to regulate chicken farming, according to The Guardian.
Environment Secretary Liz Truss will lead the changes towards “industry-led” guidance.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is planning to scrap the official code on farming chickens for meat and breeding, leading to concerns from animal welfare groups.
The British Poultry Council counts chicken hatchers and breeders as well as meat-processing giants such as Faccenda and 2Sisters among its member companies.
A Defra spokeswoman said that legislation that makes it a criminal offence to mistreat animals is not being changed.
Defra said: “No changes are being made to farm animal welfare legislation or the strict enforcement and penalties that apply.
“Instead, the British Poultry Council has produced new non-statutory guidance on how to comply with the legislation.
"The industry-led guidance can also be used as evidence in court to prove criminal liability and will ensure farmers have the most up-to-date and practical information.”
But animal protection groups are concerned that animal welfare standards could be weakened and lead to fewer prosecutions for animal cruelty.
The RSPCA said that it has voiced concerns for the past three years that the government was moving to downgrade the Codes of Recommendations for farm and companion animals in England - from statutory to industry-developed guidance.
The RSPCA said in a statement: "We are concerned that this change to guidance could impact on the legal weighting these documents have in providing magistrates with legal guidance when considering negligence during animal welfare prosecutions.
"We also have concerns that the new guidance documents may not contain the same level of welfare information as the existing codes and may only serve to help ensure animal keepers are compliant with minimum legal requirements."
Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, told the Metro that the move will leave the farming industry "to mark their own homework", raising concerns that they cannot be "trusted" to enforce animal welfare regulations.
Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, told The Guardian: “Abandoning codes of practice for farm animal welfare is not in the best interests of the animals and will not produce higher quality food.”
The Labour MP added: “In the wake of food scandals from horsemeat to campylobacter, scrapping government standards risks undermining public confidence in the food we buy.”