The official Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), which contains a powerful element of farming interests, said in its Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens: "The use of conventional battery cages should be phased out in the long-term." But the recommendation was so hedged by caveat and qualification that the committee could not come up with an alternative.
The interim recommendation, "for early action", is that battery cages should be better lit, and that cage space should be increased from 450 square centimetres to 600 square centimetres per hen within five years. That would still provide each bird with less space than a page of this newspaper.
The report also strongly urged breeding companies and the Government "to pursue genetic selection for birds which display less injurious behaviour"- feather-pecking and cannibalism - when given more space, as with the free- range system.
Replying to the report, Elliot Morley, the agriculture minister with responsibility for animal welfare, said merely: "We must plan an end to the practice of keeping laying hens in battery cages."
Asked whether that long-standing aim of the party would be achieved within the lifetime of two Labour parliaments, Mr Morley said: "It would be depressing to think it was 10 years away, but I couldn't give you a timescale because the timescale is not in our hands; it is in the hands of the [European] Council of Ministers."
Professor Sir Colin Spedding, the FAWC chairman, suggested that because of the commercial and political pressures involved, progress was much more likely to be achieved through consumer pressure on retailers and supermarkets, who could in turn use their clout to demand better animal welfare from suppliers. But Sir Colin, a former professor of agricultural systems, had to be pressed by The Independent into saying that battery cages caused suffering. The report said: "Battery cages which do not provide a nest box, perch or litter arguably cause hens frustration and suffering."
Asked whether or not the cages did cause suffering, Sir Colin said: "I suppose it depends what you mean by suffering." Pressed further, he said: "Yes, I think they do cause suffering, but that might be a misleading answer if you don't know what I mean by suffering."
Glyn Thomas, the Lancashire farmer who chaired the FAWC working group for the report, said: "It is possible that hens are frustrated and thereby, because they are frustrated, they suffer. There are people who argue that is not the case."
As for the suggestion that genetic engineering might produce a hen free from the injurious pecking instincts displayed in more open systems, Sir Colin said: "There is a worry that there might be a temptation to select something more akin to a vegetable than an animal."
The committee had no fully satisfactory alternative to the battery cage because of the problems of pecking. "If you go in for greater freedoms, then you get some of these vicious habits developing," Sir Colin said. "Unfortunately, the hen responds to total freedom no better than humans."Reuse content