Agenda item

Task and Finish Group Report: The Impact of the Intensive Poultry Industry on Human Health and Wellbeing

To report the outcomes and recommendations of the Task and Finish Group on ‘The Impact of the Intensive Poultry Industry on Human Health and Wellbeing'.  The committee will be invited to consider the outcomes from the task and finish group and to decide if the recommendations should be submitted to the Cabinet.


The committee received the report of the Task and Finish Group on ‘The Impact of the Intensive Poultry Industry on Human Health and Wellbeing'.


On behalf of the committee, the Chairperson expressed thanks to the councillors and officers involved, and to the witnesses and members of the public for their contributions.


Councillor Felicity Norman, Chairperson of the Task and Finish Group, introduced the report, the key points included: the process had been interesting but the limited evidence available had been frustrating; the group had comprised lay people with no professional expertise in this area; attention was drawn to the sentence ‘We did not find enough evidence to conclude that Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs) are harmful to health, although there were many indications and much anecdotal evidence that this may be the case, especially the impact on mental health and wellbeing’; and further research was needed on this topic and related issues.


The key points of the discussion included:


1.           A concern was expressed about the level of government regulation and action.


2.           The absence of information was significant and the limited engagement of the Environment Agency was unfortunate, particularly the refusal of the request to identify ‘how many complaints concerning these IPU premises have there been in 2021/22 so far’ on the basis that it was ‘likely to involve a significant cost and diversion of resources from our other work’.


3.           The Chairperson acknowledged the subjective nature of odour nuisance but suggested that a sense check of modelled assessment against actual performance of an installation could provide additional assurance in the planning process for IPUs.  A committee member added that an independent consultant could be utilised to review the assessments provided in planning applications.


4.           The Chairperson considered that some of the recommendations may go beyond the original scope of the Task and Finish Group and others recommended to the committee should be directed to the executive.


5.           The Vice-Chairperson recognised that the report was well intentioned but expressed reservations about aspects of the content and tone, including:


a.           The need for a systematic review of the scientific literature.


b.           Caution and balance was important in terms of the absence of evidence.


c.            Some of the conclusions drawn were considered scientifically unsound.


d.           There was no breakdown by species and types of poultry production.


e.           In terms of flocks under 40,000 birds, there was a need to test the statement that ‘there are very few of these in the county’ given the requirement to register flocks over 50 birds.


f.             It was understood that there were limited resources but there was a need to be suitably critical if reports were to be used as a basis for policy making.


g.           There were broader questions about task and finish groups, including the need for methodology, research, and logical processing to inform conclusions and recommendations.


h.           The recommendation about engagement with relevant bodies was welcomed but this also needed to include producers.


i.             Statements made about anti-microbials were challenged, with an outline provided of current UK and EU regulations.


j.             There was a need to be careful about the selective use of certain World Health Organisation reports, as these may not reflect the position in the UK.


k.            In view of the residents employed through the industry or those with units themselves, care was needed to avoid any unnecessary alarm.


l.             The finding that there was not ‘enough evidence to conclude that Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs) are harmful to health’ was welcomed but the comment that ‘there were many indications and much anecdotal evidence that this may be the case’ was disputed, particularly in view of the small number of respondents and given that the comments and suggested causations were untested.


m.          The birds themselves, given fragile respiratory systems, were an indicator of any problems and there was extensive monitoring within modern units.


n.           There was a need to work collaboratively, including with the industry.


6.           A committee member commented that: the report could be improved but there were finite resources; there was the potential for cumulative impact from ammonia and particulates being discharged into the air; people experienced distress from odour related issues; the Environment Agency could use annual fees levied on operators more effectively; and air pollution was a public health concern.


7.           The Chairperson drew attention to the Health and Safety Executive’s technical and legal guidance on poultry dust and related document ‘Controlling exposure to poultry dust: An occupational hygiene standard of good working practice for poultry farmers'.  In view of the potential health hazards in the workplace, the Chairperson did not consider it unreasonable to question the potential implications of wider exposure.


8.           A committee member noted the difficulties to prove causation in terms of respiratory diseases and questioned the effectiveness of the Environment Agency.


9.           Councillor Norman made a number of comments, including: an update to the Health Protection Agency (2006) Position Statement: Intensive Farming was overdue; not all IPUs were operated from modern buildings or to the same standard of management; and it was acknowledged that the number of respondents was relatively small but other anecdotal information came from constituents or through comments made on planning applications.


10.        The Vice-Chairperson commented on: the need for focus on the question of human health and wellbeing; acknowledged the concerns about direct contact with poultry but consideration had to be given to the dilution factor beyond such settings; the need for strong evidence and for careful use of language; and the literature referenced needed to be understood in the context of the methodology used and any subsequent criticism.


11.        The Chairperson suggested that the potential for voluntary monitoring of ammonia and particulates could be explored further with producers.


12.        The Head of Public Protection was invited to comment, the key points included: the importance of evidence; the arrangements for and limitations of environmental permits; air quality screening work undertaken at the planning application stage had not found any IPU in breach the particulate matter standards; odour issues were emotive; dilution factors and other sources of particulate matter; the Task and Finish Group’s interest in the position with the Rivers Wye and Lugg, and the issues identified in the resident feedback; there was a small number of consultants available to planning authorities; national research was to be undertaken on avian influenza outbreaks; and the frustrations of the group were understood but the findings had to be robust. 


13.        In response to a question, the Head of Public Protection outlined the monitoring requirements in relation to smaller units, commented on the concept of best available techniques not entailing excessive costs, and emphasised that the Environment Agency was responsible for policies and guidance notes.


14.        The Vice-Chairperson noted that: the majority of avian influenza outbreaks had not been in broilers; there was a need for all agencies and industry sectors to address water pollution; the First Minister for Wales had held a summit at the Royal Welsh Show on reducing pollution in rivers; and there was a distinction between people identifying concerns and diagnosable mental health conditions. 


15.        In response to a comment from a committee member about encouraging producers to upgrade older units, the Vice-Chairperson commented on a new broiler directive and on the ‘Better Chicken’ programme. 


16.        There was a brief discussion about the perceptions and actualities of animal welfare.


17.        A committee member commented that various agricultural activities caused distress to people and there was a need for evidence-based recommendations.


18.        The Vice-Chairperson offered to assist the Task and Finish Group on appropriate revisions to the report.


The committee discussed the recommendations in turn, the principal points arising included:


5.1    Promotion of public engagement and awareness


         It was considered that the recommendations could be supported.  In particular, a myth-busting document was considered important but this should not necessarily be based on Appendix 1 and 2 to the report, and it should avoid potentially alarmist language.


5.2    Joint working with partners and external agencies


         The promotion of the use of task and finish group findings within the council and encouraging participation by a wide range of groups and industry bodies reflected good practice.  As this should be part of regular scrutiny activity, the recommendations were not considered necessary.


5.3    Planning and permit issuing


         It was considered sensible to consult health partners on planning applications where appropriate.


         The Public Health Consultant commented that a Supplementary Planning Document in relation to health impact had been developed in Worcestershire and elsewhere. 


         The Public Health Consultant also commented that: the UK Health Security Agency had recently confirmed that it was working on an update to the Health Protection Agency (2006) Position Statement; work with colleagues in primary care had not found any link between increasing respiratory conditions and the proliferation of IPUs; it was important to recognise people’s experiences but also to put this into the statistical context of the county; and the 2006 position statement had concluded that ‘intensive farms may cause pollution but provided they comply with modern regulatory requirements any pollutants to air, water and land are unlikely to cause serious or lasting ill health in local communities’.


The Vice-Chairperson suggested that the concept of ‘One Health’, i.e. human, animal and environment, should be part of any health impact assessment.


In addition to exploring matters relating to issuing and regulating IPU permits, the Chairperson suggested that consideration could be given to a recommendation to request the executive to engage with the industry to develop a voluntary code in relation to monitoring.

The Chairperson considered that the recommendation to ‘formulate and encourage the adoption of a countywide waste manure management strategy’ was out of scope of the Task and Finish Group but the point could be noted in some other way.  It was noted that Cabinet was due to consider the establishment of a Phosphates Commission.


5.4    Inspection, regulation and monitoring


The Chairperson acknowledged the need to work collectively and constructively on the ‘best available techniques’ but also to encourage innovation.


In view of the recently updated technical and legal guidance, it was not considered necessary to make a recommendation in relation to the Health and Safety Executive.


It was considered that the recommendation to ‘request accurate monitoring and recording of national quantities of manure and manure management’ was out of scope.


5.5    Independent research


The Chairperson suggested that the recommendations needed to be reframed to take account of the UK Health Security Agency work on updating the position statement.  It was commented that the council could work with and assist the UKHSA.


There was a brief discussion about ensuring that the report was robust and credible before sharing it with other bodies.


A committee member commented on the opportunity to work with Herefordshire and Ludlow College.


It was considered that the recommendation ‘Continue to take samples from the county’s private water supplies and wells to test for any potential link between poultry manure spreading and pollution’ was not necessary as there was an existing statutory duty.


5.6    Mental health awareness


It was suggested that the thematic summary of the responses received from the public be shared with primary care services but it was not necessary to highlight specific issues.


5.7    Publicising the report


The Chairperson considered that task and finish group reports should be treated and publicised in a consistent way.


It was noted that a further draft report would be considered by the committee for recommendation to the executive, and the executive responses would be reported back to the committee.  Although the committee would wish to maintain an interest in developments following this, it was not considered necessary to identify a specific timescale to revisit this issue in the work programme.


In response to questions, the Head of Public Protection commented on conditions included in planning permissions to minimise offensive odours beyond site boundaries and considered it unlikely that the government would accept the reintroduction of a minimum distance between IPUs and residential properties given the variables involved.  The Chairperson suggested that the executive could be asked to consider the inclusion of such a distance factor in supplementary planning guidance.




That consideration of the item be deferred and members of the Task and Finish Group be invited to review the draft report and recommendations, in consultation with members of the committee and the Interim Statutory Scrutiny Officer, taking into account the views and suggested revisions made by the committee, with a further iteration to be presented to the next scheduled meeting of the committee.

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