Warning over illegal eggs

The EU’s first ever legislation designed to improve animal welfare might not be worth the paper it’s written on.


From January 1, barren battery cages – those that don’t allow hens to carry out natural behaviours such as foraging and stretching of wings – will be banned as part of the Welfare of Laying Hens Directive. Almost.


After 12 years of haggling and heel-dragging, there are still 12 Member States, including Spain, Italy, Greece and Poland, that will not be compliant with the Directive.


The European Commission has ruled out legislation to enforce the ban on free trade grounds, leaving producers in some countries free to sell cheaper battery eggs – much of it as liquid and powder – across the EU. This could put UK producers at a competitive disadvantage and result in UK consumers eating ‘illegally produced’ eggs.


The British Egg Industry has estimated that 84 million hens across the EU will still be in the illegal cages by the New Year.


UK egg farmers have led the way in introducing higher welfare standards, spending millions of pounds to convert to better cages. Anne McIntosh MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has challenged the UK Government to sort the issue out.


“The EU Commission proposes that illegal eggs, that fail to comply with the improved animal welfare requirements set out in the Directive, can still be used by food and non-food manufacturers, either in the Member State of origin or elsewhere under bilateral agreements.


“It is a travesty that Member States, which have had 12 years to prepare, will be allowed to flout the EU’s first legislation designed to improve animal welfare.


“It is also unacceptable that UK consumers will not know whether processed foods, restaurant meals, fast food or even shampoo that they buy contain eggs that do not comply with the new animal welfare regulations for caged hens.”


UK Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said it is “unacceptable” that the Commission is not able to enforce a regulation on animal welfare. “I fully understand why other countries who have complied with the rules reject any compromise. However, that would mean the destruction of millions of eggs every week which would not be right. That is why the idea of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to ensure that eggs from illegal cages do not leave the country of origin, seems the least-worst option.”


The Commission has arranged for another meeting of specialists and Paice said he is hopeful of a way forward.


Compassion in World Farming, meanwhile, is urging consumers to ask whether the eggs in products are British and cage-free.