A third of eggs produced in Europe will not meet improved welfare standards for laying hens / PA

A third of eggs produced in Europe will not meet improved welfare standards for laying hens, hitting UK farmers who have spent millions to comply with the new rules, MPs warned today.

British farmers will have spent £400 million improving conditions for egg-laying hens which will be wasted if eggs are imported from other EU countries which do not comply with the rules, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said.

UK producers will also be at a competitive disadvantage if cheaper, illegal egg products are coming into the UK once the regulations come into force in January, the MPs said.

The new directive rules out the use of conventional battery cages for all laying hens in the EU, with a minimum standard of "enriched" cages which give the birds more space, nesting and perching areas, and features which allow natural behaviour.

But the MPs warned the European Commission was sleepwalking into a potential commercial disaster, as it was being complacent over enforcement of the regulations.

The UK industry estimates that while it is working to comply with the rules, more than 100 million hens will still be in battery cages in other EU countries when the Welfare of Laying Hens Directive comes into force.

In this country around half of hens are in cages and 45% are in free range systems. Around 80% of the 31 million eggs consumed in the UK each day are produced here, with the rest imported from other EU countries and a small amount exported, mainly to Ireland.

The committee's chairwoman Anne McIntosh said: "The European Commission has just not woken up to the impact that non-compliance with this legislation will have on egg producers in the UK and across Europe.

"UK egg producers have spent around £400 million to improve conditions for laying hens.

"That money will be wasted and UK producers will be left at a competitive disadvantage if cheaper, illegal and non-compliant shell eggs and egg products can be imported to the UK from other European countries."

The committee called for the UK Government to press for a trade ban within the EC on the export from member states of eggs and egg products which do not comply with the new rules.

And the European Commission must take action against countries where egg producers do not comply with the directive once it comes into force, the MPs urged.

Ms McIntosh added: "Several member states have not provided data to the Commission about the preparedness of their caged egg producers and thus far, the Commission has failed to deal with the threat of large-scale non-compliance across the EU."

The committee also warned that a failure by the Commission to enforce the rules would set a worrying precedent for other legislation to improve animal welfare.

Tory Euro-MPs also called for the EU to crack down on countries where producers were not complying with the rules.

Richard Ashworth, MEP for South East England and Conservative spokesman on agriculture and rural affairs, said: "British farmers shouldn't have to face unfair competition from non-compliant member states which have had 12 years notice to get their house in order.

"British farmers have done the right thing and banished battery cages.

"Now the EU must not let other countries dodge their responsibilities. Otherwise they will gain a grossly unfair commercial advantage by flouting the new welfare rules."

British retailers moved to reassure customers that they would not be selling eggs from Europe that failed to meet the new welfare standards.

The British Retail Consortium, whose members include the major supermarket chains and food outlets, said it was guaranteeing that its companies would not be stocking lower welfare eggs on their shelves or using them in their products.

The BRC's food director, Andrew Opie, said: "UK egg producers have worked hard to meet high welfare standards ahead of parts of Europe and our retailers support them by buying as many of their shell eggs as they can and labelling them clearly as British.

"Retailers won't compromise on welfare standards when it comes to the eggs on their shelves or in their own-brand products.

"We are pleased to be able to offer shoppers and British egg producers a guarantee that lower welfare eggs will not be bought by UK supermarkets or used as ingredients in their own products."

The Government said it had pushed Europe hard on the issue of compliance, and had prevented attempts by other countries to delay the regulations earlier this year.

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesman said: "The UK poultry industry has worked hard and made a significant investment to improve laying hen welfare, which would be undermined if producers in other countries don't also make the changes.

"We are pressing the European Commission to take action to ensure the 2012 deadline is met, and will keep up the pressure to ensure good animal welfare."