MEPs want ban on battery hens within 10 years

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The Independent Online
EURO MPS yesterday demanded the abolition of all cages for battery hens by 2009 in a move which increased the political pressure on European leaders to introduce new animal welfare measures.

By a two thirds majority, MEPs called for a total ban on the cages, going well beyond the more limited measures proposed by the European Commission to increase their minimum size.

Although the vote is not binding it marks a significant escalation of the Europe-wide campaign to improve the plight of factory-farmed animals.

Campaigners will now concentrate their efforts on the Council of Agriculture Ministers, which has the power to introduce a ban throughout the 15 EU nations.

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, is committed to pressing for the phasing out of cages for battery hens but argues that the UK cannot afford to act unilaterally.

Philip Lymbery, Campaigns Director for Compassion in World Farming, said it was "a tremendous day for animal welfare", adding: "The Council of Ministers will take the final decision but they will find it very hard to ignore this ringing endorsement from the European Parliament for the ban on battery hen cages."

He dismissed the argument that the move would result in a big price hike, adding that the differential in production costs between battery and free-range eggs is about 9p a box.

Yesterday's vote is a complication for the European Commission, which had called for an increase in the size of battery hen cages from a 450 square centimetre minimum floor area to 800 square centimetres by 2009. One of its arguments is that cages provide sanctuary for some vulnerable hens from attack by others.

A spokesman for the Commission said yesterday that reforms must be accompanied by global rules on standards to stop cheap imports flooding the market. He added: "In the absence of them we would be making our producers uncompetitive at great social cost to rural Europe."

In October 1996 the independent Scientific Veterinary Committee gave valuable ammunition to campaigners by pointing to the defects of the battery cage system, in particular the small available area and lack of stimulus. It also noted negative elements of alternatives, including the risk of feather pecking and cannibalism.

MEPs agreed with the Commission that a 10-year phase-in period for changes is necessary to allow farmers to adapt, in view of the fact that 93 per cent of eggs consumed in the EU are battery farmed. However they snubbed the Commission's proposal by voting for a complete ban by the 2009 deadline.

Mark Watts, Labour MEP for Kent East and author of the successful amendment calling for a ban, said: "It is a myth that consumers will not buy free- range eggs.

"The fact is that 89 per cent of the British public believe keeping hens in small cages is cruel and almost half now buy barn or free-range eggs. Changing from battery to free-range eggs would cost the average consumer less than pounds 2 a year."

Robert Sturdy, Conservative MEP for Cambridgeshire, warned that abolition of cages must be accompanied by legal moves to block cheap imports. "Consumers will decide which eggs to buy on price as long as they are safe," he said. "It is not realistic to expect them to pay 25 per cent more for eggs that are free-range. We must make sure EU farmers do not suffer as a result of cheap imports."