The French presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) recently said it wants conventional cages for laying hens banned by Jan. 1, 2012, as originally agreed under the Welfare of Laying Hens Directive 1999/74 EC. It opposes any proposals to delay it, according to a report by FarmingUK. Michel Barnier, French minister of agriculture and fisheries, made the statement during a meeting of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on the Welfare & Conservation of Animals in Brussels. The use of conventional battery cages will be banned from Jan. 1, 2012, but enriched cages will still be allowed. "I would not like us to go back on that date. I would not like to see it postponed. The Council position is that battery farming should cease on that day," Barnier said.
That's fine with us, say most United Kingdom (UK) cage egg producers who have already been told by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to get on with the changeover from conventional cages into enriched cages (colony systems) without delay. But that is not enough for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the UK’s highest profile animal welfare group. RSPCA says it welcomes the statement by Michael Barnier, but wants a complete ban on all cage systems, including enriched cage (colony) systems. The NFU hit back saying consumers should be left to decide.
Cage ban a small step forward
RSPCA admits the conventional cage ban will mark a small step forward in terms of animal welfare, but says that following the ban, eggs from caged hens will still be available and produced in so-called enriched cages. Alice Clark, a senior RSPCA farm animal scientist, said, "Enriched battery cages are little better than the notorious conventional battery cages. Little will change from the hens' point of view. So we are calling on the government to ban all cages and are urging consumers not to buy eggs produced from them, especially as eggs are widely available from higher welfare barn and free-range systems."
The NFU hit back and its chief poultry adviser, Robert Newbery, said, "The RSPCA is being short-sighted and irresponsible in calling for enriched colony systems to be banned at a time when our members are doing their level best to respond to consumer demands, which means supplying eggs to all ends of the market. The egg industry has to reflect diverging consumer needs for higher welfare eggs, but also for affordability. Sales in free-range and conventional indoor eggs are both growing, reflecting that some consumers wish to buy higher welfare while other consumers, who have to watch the pennies especially in this current financial climate, opt for affordability. Banning the new enriched colony system that our members are making considerable investments in would only serve to export our egg industry to outside of the UK [or EU], where welfare standards may be well behind our own. With food security a key issue, we need to do all we can to safeguard UK supply and not force production abroad." Conversion from conventional to enriched cage systems in the UK requires an investment by farmers of between £15-25 per bird.
Producers, consumers caught in the middle
UK cage egg producers and consumers are increasingly caught up in the middle of these arguments which seem to take place over their heads within the media and supermarket chains, both supremely strong and dictatorial in the UK. Cage egg producers are in the process of changing over from conventional to enriched cage systems but clearly not knowing which way the market will be forced to go. Producers are understandably afraid of losing their investment if they suddenly wake up one morning to find that some deal has been done between welfare groups and the government and/or the supermarkets, so that UK enriched cage eggs are no longer allowable or saleable.
Well planned production is split. says farmer
One producer who is already well on his way in the changeover and an example to others is Robert Chapman, who runs Farmlay eggs in Aberdeenshire. He was recently profiled as a "Poultry Farmer of the Year" by Farmers Weekly. Chapman was the first egg producer in Scotland to install enriched cages. Half of his eggs are sold through Morrison's (a nationwide UK supermarket), while the rest go into the local Scottish market, which he is trying to develop further.
Chapman has a clear vision for the future, said the Farmers Weekly profile, by investing in enriched cages well ahead of the Jan. 1, 2012, changeover and "hedging his bets" with a planned production split between enriched cage and free range systems. Almost one quarter of his birds are now in enriched cages.
Benefits, but caution with enriched cages
Chapman claims noticeable benefits since installing the enriched cages. "It provides better hen welfare, as there is more space per bird, plus they have perches and a scratch area," he says. But he remains cautious on converting more cages. "You could spend a million [£] on a new enriched cage unit and then find out consumers don’t want to buy the eggs," says Chapman, clearly with an eye on the latest statements from the RSPCA about banning all cage systems.
"Similarly, if you invest in free range and then the market goes flat due to the credit crunch, what do you do? UK poultry producers have already seen the bottom starting to fall out of the premium high price organic egg sector over the last two months. We think the best solution post-2012 is to have both enriched and free range systems," Chapman says. His unit currently runs 145,000 conventionally caged birds, 45,000 enriched, and 45,000 on free-range systems.
And what about the increasingly confused UK consumer bombarded by bird welfare considerations via an increasingly aggressive national media, but not informed of the consequences of banning all cage systems in the production of home-grown UK eggs. The European Commission (EC) via the European Union (EU) is very good at coming up with plans for poultry, but not always so adept at enforcing them so that all EU-country poultry producers have a level playing field. Getting all UK layers out of conventional cages will be no problem, but industry observers say there is no hope of the same being achieved in the new EU-country member states in Eastern Europe or some southern European producers like Spain. Spain is now the top EU egg producer with over 1 million tonnes of eggs produced per year.
Consumers face uncertainty
Come Jan. 1, 2012, the EU will likely be faced with a huge shortage of eggs if it sticks to its guns on a universal EU-country ban on conventional cages. This would mean a massive influx of eggs from outside the EU from producing countries where hen welfare as viewed by the EU simply does not exist.
More likely, the EC will grant derogation to particular EU-countries over the ban on conventional cages. This means UK producers having just invested in enriched cages will be up against conventional cage eggs still produced in Eastern Europe, Spain, and elsewhere at prices they cannot afford to compete with. And many UK consumers, still suffering from the current economic downturn and unable to afford high priced high welfare eggs, will be forced to purchase conventional cage eggs sourced from Spain and other EU-countries, with their unacceptably high levels of Salmonella contamination that consistently show up in EU-wide surveys.