Leading Article: Food for thought as you devour breakfast

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THE EUROPEAN Parliament's vote to ban battery hen farming should be applauded as a small but significant step in the protection of animals from cruelty. But why should it take 10 years to eliminate this unpleasant and unnecessary form of industrialised food production? "To give egg producers time to adapt", we are told, as if poultry farmers were a primitive form of life that will take millions of years to evolve into a more intelligent species.

When agriculture ministers meet to consider the parliament's recommendation, Nick Brown should argue for a quicker phase-out. This is a simple moral decision; it will cost the consumers of Europe more - but only fractionally more, and certainly not enough to justify a decade's delay.

Generally, this newspaper argues for less state intervention in the heavily subsidised European food market, and for abolishing the Common Agricultural Policy. But this is a classic example of a case where a free market requires state action. Consumers need full information if markets are to work efficiently. Most consumers do not know the conditions in which their eggs are produced, or they are misled by "farm fresh" labels, or just buy the cheapest.

Free markets take no account of the interests of animals. All markets must operate under the constraints of ethical laws; the issue here is where to draw the line.

Nor should eggs be the end of the line. There are many more causes of avoidable animal suffering, and we have not finished with breakfast yet. For all our moral outrage over fox-hunting and seal culls, there seems precious little indignation to spare for the cruelty inflicted on a grand scale on the animals we use for food. It is not just eggs, but also chicken meat, pork and, to a lesser extent, beef and cows' milk. How many rashers of intensively reared bacon would you like with your free-range eggs?