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Row erupts over cage-free eggs

A row has broken out between animal welfare groups and the government’s chief veterinary officer over the role of caged hens in egg production.

The Independent reported that Nigel Gibbens, who advises DEFRA on veterinary and welfare issues, said the commitment by leading retailers to stop selling caged eggs by 2025 was misguided because of the threat posed by bird flu.

He reportedly told the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference in Newport, Wales, that public demand for free-range hens clashed with the need to protect flocks from bird flu, adding that allowing hens outside put them at increased risk of infection from wild birds.

Gibbens’ comments provoked a furious reaction from welfare groups who accused him of expressing “misguided” and “outdated” views. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) said Gibbens had confused “the need to house birds during high risk periods of avian influenza with the barbaric act of caging them throughout their entire lives”.

It added that “systems that deprive animals of their most basic behaviours do not have a place in our future food system and are outdated in the eyes of the consumer”.

A number of food businesses including Tesco and Compass Group have committed to sourcing 100% cage-free eggs in their businesses, while countries including Germany and Austria have announced future bans on enriched cages.

Gibbens responded to the criticism by tweeting: “Many in this discussion picture birds in idyllic backyard or artisanal production. At commercial scale free range is a bit different, with thousands of birds sharing a shed and access to acres of open range. This has its own welfare challenges that need careful management.”