The decision came after opposition from France and several Mediterranean countries crumbled at a meeting of ministers in Luxembourg. According to the political agreement, farmers will have until 31 December 2012 to phase out use of battery cages in favour of free-range farming, the housing of hens in large, barn-like aviaries or the use of so-called "luxury cages".
The move, which will be laid down in a regulation by the European Commission, was hailed by the German Agriculture Minister, Karl-Heinz Funke, as "an important step in animal welfare". Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture and one of the proponents of reform, described it as a "very positive development towards getting rid of a cruel system".
The "luxury cages" have to provide at least 750 square centimetres of space per chicken, compared with the current European norm of 450 square centimetres and 310 square centimetres in the USA. In addition, they need to have a nesting area with a litter, a scratching pad to sharpen claws and a perch.
Joyce D'Silva, director of Compassion in World Farming, said: "We are pleased the ministers ... agreed that keeping a hen in a barren cage, standing on a sloping wire-mesh floor all their lives, unable even to stretch her wings, is simply not credible any longer. I am surprised and thrilled that the French, Greek and Italian ministers were won over. It is a landmark, because this is something Compassion in World Farming was set up to achieve in 1967."
The delay of more than 12 years has been built into the plan to reduce costs to farmers who will be expected to implement the measures when existing facilities need replacing. The average life of a battery unit is 10 years.
The deal was an improvement for farmers on one compromise, which suggested 2107 as the target starting date.
Campaigners had to overcome opposition from France, Italy, Greece and Spain. After a lobbying campaign only the Spanish abstained yesterday.
Europe farms about 250 million hens, of which about 30 million are in Britain. However, an increasing quantity of egg production is free-range.
British consumers have shown a growing taste for non-battery eggs, with Waitrose seeing a 65 per cent increase in sales and Marks & Spencer deciding to sell only free-range eggs. However, the catering and food-processing trade still uses large quantities of battery produce.Reuse content