Focus: The hens have got lucky

Battery chickens may soon have their suffering eased, but it's still a grim existence for millions of cows, pigs and sheep
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When you tuck into your boiled egg this morning, you could look forward to the day when you won't have to worry about whether or not it was free range, when a trip to the supermarket no longer involved anguishing over labels, calculating whether a clear conscience was worth paying 30p extra for half a dozen eggs.

But while both hens and consumers could celebrate the news from Brussels last week, that the European Parliament had voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning the battery cage - the most potent symbol of the cruelty of factory farming - the battle to improve the lot of other livestock, the pig, the sheep and the cow, has barely begun.

Last week's vote concentrated attention on Britain's 32 million egg- laying hens, most of them confined in battery cages. But at any one time there are more than twice as many chickens and turkeys being raised for their meat, nearly all of them in huge windowless sheds. No Euro-legislation is pending for them.

Fed an abundant high-protein diet, the chicks grow astonishingly quickly and are ready for slaughter at just six weeks - even though they are not yet sexually mature. By this time they are as tightly crammed in their barns as battery chickens. Because they have put on so much weight many can barely support themselves and have trouble walking, and they are also at risk of heart failure.

EVEN SO, the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, the two key British pressure groups campaigning against the cruelty of factory farming, say that they are making steady headway on a broad front.

Veal crates, banned in 1991 Britain, are to be outlawed in the rest of the EU by 2007. The sow tether, which confines pregnant pigs indoors on a very short length of chain, are also to be phased out on the Continent by 2006 having been banned in Britain from the beginning of this year.

Mark Watts, the Labour MEP for East Kent who played a leading part in mustering support for the vote against the battery cage ban, says: ``Britain has often spearheaded these campaigns, but we're no longer alone - they are spreading across the Continent. It's quite infectious.''

People's willingness to buy meat, eggs and dairy products that meet high welfare standards - and usually cost more - is also growing.

Leading the way is Freedom Foods, a not-for-profit subsidiary of the RSPCA, which exists to promote such products and give them a badge of authenticity. In order to put the Freedom Foods logo on their packaging, retailers have to demonstrate that the animals involved in making the food are raised, transported and slaughtered with the minimum of harm.

Despite having been in business for several years, only 16 per cent of consumers recognise Freedom Foods, says its marketing manager Tracey Dawson. She hopes the proportion will grow rapidly later this year when two major supermarket chains start stocking products carrying the label, adding to Tesco, Co-op, Safeway and several others which already do.

``Our market research shows that more and more people are concerned about animal welfare,'' she says. ``But there's a very large group who would rather not think about how the food they eat is raised. They don't want to make the connection between the animal on the farm and the food on the supermarket shelf. We have to find a clever way of tapping into their latent concerns. They certainly don't want to know the specifics.''

Farmers fear that being kinder to their livestock will add to their costs. The combination of legislation and consumer pressure that is ratcheting up welfare standards could not come at a worse time, for the industry is deep in recession.

Last week the Ministry of Agriculture estimated that farmers' overall incomes had fallen by 58 per cent over the past two years. And, in March, Europe's farm ministers are expected to agree a reform of the infamous Common Agricultural Policy which will drastically cut the guaranteed prices they get for several key crops.

There may be a silver lining. One thrust of the reforms is to subsidise more environmentally friendly, less-intensive forms of farming, which often turn out to be inherently kinder to livestock.

But there is also a dark cloud; the threat of trade wars. If the European Union is to demand higher welfare standards of its own farmers, it will also have to ban imports of food that is produced cheaply, but cruelly, outside its borders.

AS FOR THE final fate of the battery hen, Europe's farm ministers - who have the final say in the matter - may well decide later this year that last week's vote was excessively kind.

The proposal had been merely to double the amount of space each chicken has in a battery cage - at present five chickens spend their whole life in an area as large as this page. Instead, the European Parliament voted for the entire system to be eliminated by 2009.

It's still quite possible that the less welfare-conscious southern European nations, led by France, will form a blocking minority on more animal-friendly nations like Britain, Germany and the Scandinavians.

David Bowles, head of the RSPCA's international affairs department, says: ``I wouldn't be surprised if, in three or four months' time, the ministers compromise on cages that give 600 square centimetres per bird.''

In other words, four birds living in an area that presently accommodates five. So keep studying the labels on the egg boxes and be prepared to pay extra for free range - it may ultimately fall to us, the consumer, to kill off the battery cage.

BRITAIN'S 2.5 million dairy cows have been turned into milk-producing machines by generations of selective breeding. They need repeated pregnancies to keep them producing milk, yet their calves are taken away from them just a few days after birth.

At the age of five or six, having produced three or four calves, they are clapped out and ready for slaughter. Lameness is a frequent metabolic side-effect of producing so much milk. Mastitis - a painful inflammation of the udder - is also common.

Hundreds of thousands of very young, male dairy calves used to be exported to the Continent each year for veal production, before the BSE crisis caused Europe to ban imports of British beef. With the lifting of the ban the calf trade could resume.

THE GOVERNMENT's Meat and Livestock Commission is urging shoppers to buy British pork, claiming that the UK is now a world leader in rearing pigs humanely. Some progress is certainly being made. On 1 January a ban was introduced on stalls and tethers for the pregnant sows. These devices gave the sow almost no freedom of movement; she was either confined in tiny stalls too small to turn around in, or held in place by a short length of chain. On the Continent such conditions still exist.

But most of Britain's 7.8 million pigs are still raised indoors, at high densities; piglets still have their tails docked without anaesthetic and many pigs spend their lives on concrete floors or slats, without bedding. ``Pigs really need something to root around in and explore,'' said Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming.

LAST YEAR more than 500,000 cramped and stressed lambs and sheep were exported by lorry from Britain to Europe. Welfare campaigners and the Government would prefer them to be exported "on the hook" - as carcasses - rather than "on the hoof". But there is a price advantage in live exports. And some farmers, mostly Welsh, are so determined to continue the trade that they have bought a ferry to maintain a Dover and Dunkirk service. Euro-laws on live animal transport have been tightened - but there is evidence that they are widely flouted.

Meanwhile, in a bid to cut costs, fewer and fewer farmers and shepherds are looking after Britain's 42 million sheep. One person can be responsible for 700 or more animals, which means problems like foot rot and lameness are more likely to go unchecked.