Labour to ban farm `cruelty'

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The Independent Online
LABOUR is proposing to ban battery hen farming as part of a radical new deal for animals.

A party strategy document, Farming Without Cruelty, is to be published soon by Labour's animal-welfare spokesman, Elliot Morley, promising legislation by a Blair government to improve life on the farm.

Central to it will be a pledge that Labour will press the European Union to redefine animals in the Treaty of Rome as "sentient beings" rather than "agricultural products".

The policy paper will condemn battery hen rearing, which affects about 30 million birds in the UK and many millions more in continental Europe.

Denmark has already banned the practice, and pressure for a ban is also strong in Sweden.

"Labour wants to end battery farming, but we will have to do it on a Europe-wide basis," said Mr Morley.

In the short term, the party will encourage improvements in the existing system, providing greater room for the birds and a perch. There will also be stronger regulations on egg-package labelling, so that customers know in what conditions hens are kept.

Labour's move follows publication last week of a manifesto by Compassion in World Farming aimed at making animal welfare a key issue in the coming general election.

Demanding an EU ban on battery cages, CIWF said this form of intensive husbandry often led to "serious physical disorders and pain".

Peter Stevenson, the organisation's political director, said: "Hens are usually crammed five to a cage so they cannot spread their wings, let alone walk and build a nest.

"The lack of exercise results in bone weakness and a high incidence of broken bones. Until the cage is abandoned, battery eggs should, in the interest of informed consumer choice, be labelled as `eggs from caged hens'."

Labour has endorsed the Compassion in World Farming manifesto, and many of its aims will be incorporated in its own policy document.

Mr Morley added: "We support clear consumer labelling so that consumers can use the power of choice to support those producers who have switched to less intensive animal-production systems such as free range and outdoor pig systems."

In a move certain to be welcomed by animal-welfare activists, Labour will commit itself to a move away from the export of live animals in favour of meat exports.

"Not only is live animal export bad for the welfare of the animal, it is also bad for the rural economy," said Labour's animal-welfare spokesman.

"It also encourages a criminal underclass who consistently flout the law. Labour intends to take firm action against these people.

"Their latest scam of importing calves to be slaughtered in the UK to claim subsidy from the taxpayer is an abuse. Labour will stop this." The document will also address the issue of selective breeding, which is being used to breed heavier animals that grow more quickly.

Broiler chickens - hens produced for their meat - are reared to be so heavy that they suffer painful leg problems, while turkeys develop degenerative hip disorders. Cows are bred to have such huge udders that their back legs are forced out, causing lameness.

Labour further promises to regulate bio-genetic engineering on the farm. Science is advancing at such a rate that, for instance, it could soon be technically possible to develop a chicken without feathers, which would obviate the need for plucking. "We will set up a standing Ethics Committee to evaluate the ethical and moral dimension of bio-genetics," said Mr Morley.

The Opposition's policy document is expected to appear in November, when there will be consultations with the National Farmers' Union and other interested bodies.