Battery-hen eggs to be labelled

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The Independent Online

All British eggs laid by hens kept in battery cages will be stamped with a label declaring their origins. Supermarkets failing to carry the new stamp ­ "eggs from caged hens" ­ will face prosecution under a new European regulation due to be ratified this week.

The change in law has been heralded as a huge victory by animal welfare groups, infuriated by the current confusion over egg labelling. The RSPCA hopes the new labelling will deter shoppers from buying cheap battery-farmed eggs and persuade them to switch to more expensive, free-range eggs. Free-range eggs cost about 60p more per half dozen.

"A lot of terms used at the moment are very confusing," said RSPCA's farm animals spokeswoman Abigail Hall. "At the moment eggs from battery hens may be labelled 'farm-fresh' or 'country-fresh'. This implies to the consumer the hens are kept in good welfare conditions ­ and they are not."

According to the campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), five hens are kept in cages with floor space the size of an A4 piece of paper. There is no space for hens to flap their wings and up to one-third die from osteoporosis due to weak bones. Conventional battery cages are being phased out by the European Union but the effective ban will not take place until 2012.

Peter Stevenson, CIWF's political and legal director, welcomed the new European regulation on egg-labelling ­ although he said he was disappointed the scheme will not be made compulsory until 2004.

"It will help consumers to make an informed choice," said Mr Stevenson. "In the wake of BSE and foot and mouth there is a consumer revolution over the way we farm."

Under the new European Commission regulation, eggs will carry one of three labels: "eggs from caged hens", "eggs from barn hens" or "eggs from free range hens". But both the RSPCA and the CIWF are furious at a change in the definition of free-range eggs, currently also being mooted by the European Commission. Currently, no more than 1,000 hens per hectare (2.4 acres) are allowed for an egg to carry the label free-range. Under the new marketing proposals, up to 2,500 hens per hectare will be allowed.

A Ministry of Agriculture source involved in the EC negotiations said the deal was certain to be agreed on Tuesday. The source said: "The assumption is if people see the word 'caged' they won't buy the eggs. But that is not necessarily borne out. Many shoppers will go for the price, and if that means cheaper battery eggs that's what they will buy."