New rules, which come into force on 1 January 2012, are designed to improve conditions for caged ('battery') hens. They are the first piece of EU legislation to ban a specific method of food production on animal welfare grounds.
In a report examining the Welfare of Laying Hens Directive, the UK Parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warns that around one third of Europe's egg production will not comply with the new welfare standards when this legislation comes into force.
Launching the report, Committee chair Anne McIntosh MP said,
"The European Commission has just not woken up to the impact that non-compliance with this legislation will have on egg producers in the UK and across Europe.
UK egg producers have spent around £400 million to improve conditions for laying hens. That money will be wasted and UK producers will be left at a competitive disadvantage if cheaper, illegal and non-compliant shell eggs and egg products can be imported to the UK from other European countries."
The report calls on:
- The UK Government to press for an intra-community trade ban on the export of non-compliant eggs and egg products.
- The EU Commission to initiate infraction proceedings against Member States where caged egg producers remain non-compliant once the Directive comes into force.
Commenting further, McIntosh adds,
"Several Member States have not provided data to the Commission about the preparedness of their caged egg producers and, thus far, the Commission has failed to deal with the threat of large-scale non-compliance across the EU.
We recommend that the powers and resources of the EU's Food and Veterinary Office be strengthened to help ensure all Member States impose robust inspection regimes sufficient to enforce compliance with the Directive.
We also call on the Government to confirm whether it would be possible for the UK to take unilateral action against non-compliant egg imports."
The Efra Committee also points out that any failure by the Commission to enforce this new Directive effectively will set a worrying precedent for other legislation intended to improve the welfare of farm animals.
Around 31 million eggs are eaten in the UK each day, with around 80% of shell eggs and egg products (including liquid, powdered and frozen whole or part eggs) produced domestically. Laying hens are housed either in cage, barn, or free-range systems. Currently, about one half of UK egg production is from caged hens and 45% from free-range systems.
The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive (Council Directive 1999/74/EC), which applies to businesses with over 350 laying hens, provides that conventional cage systems must not be used after 1 January 2012. After this date, caged hens must be kept in 'enriched' cages, which have more living space per hen (750 cm2 cage area per hen compared to 550 cm2 in conventional cages - less than an A4 sheet of paper), a nest, perching space, litter to allow pecking and scratching, and unrestricted access to a feed trough. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that enriched cages result in a significant improvement in hen welfare compared to conventional cages.
When the Directive comes into force the UK egg production industry expects to have spent about £400 million to be fully compliant with the legislation. Figures from the European Commission indicate that around one third of EU production will not comply with the Directive.