The end of battery farms in Britain – but not Europe

A long-awaited ban will come into force on Sunday. But shoppers will still face an ethical choice when buying eggs

Farmers have freed more than 80 million hens from especially cruel and cramped lives in one of the most significant changes to animal welfare legislation in decades: the end of battery cages.

Click here to see 'The cage sized compared' graphic

But while almost all British egg producers will be compliant with the new EU-wide law – which will ban the keeping of egg-laying hens in barren battery cages from this Sunday – many European countries will continue to keep battery hens.

Spain, France, Poland and others admit they will not be ready to drop battery cages (or just refuse to say when they will be ready) despite having had 13 years to prepare for the change in the treatment of farm animals.

This has led to fears that cheaper,illegal eggs from the Continent will flood into UK wholesalers, manufacturers and caterers – undercutting British egg producers, who say they feel "let down" by the Government's refusal to unilaterally ban eggs from non-compliant EU states. Battery cages prevent hens from exhibiting natural behaviour such as wing flapping, perching and foraging. Battery cages, the most common method of egg production, allow 550cm sq space per bird, less than a sheet of A4 paper.

British poultry farmers have spent £400m over the last decade replacing them with larger "enriched" cages which, although still disliked by animal welfare groups, are a third more spacious per bird, and have perches, litter and darkened laying areas.

Animal welfare groups say their message to shoppers is the same: buy free-range. Waitrose, the Co-operative and Marks & Spencer will refuse to stock eggs from enriched cages, but they will be on sale in Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it will enforce the ban vigorously and lobby Brussels to act against illegal battery farms.

The British Egg Industry Council estimates that during the past two years 81 million hens, almost a quarter of Europe's 363 million egg-laying hens, have been removed from battery cages in preparation for the ban.

Despite their dissatisfaction with the caging of any hens, animal welfare groups are pleased with the new law, not least because it demonstrates a firm desire in the EU to improve farm conditions. Continental poultry business lobbied aggressively in Brussels in an attempt to delay the legislation until 2020, but European agriculture ministers held firm.

Although some farming systems still concern animal welfare campaigners – such as the move towards keeping high-yielding dairy cows inside with no access to pasture – Europe has now banned, or agreed bans, on all three of the cruellest and most industrialised systems of farming: veal crates, which were banned in 2007; sow stalls (which confine female pigs in small pens) – a ban on which was agreed this year and will come into force in 2013 – and now the battery cage ban. Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser of Compassion in World Farming, said: "It's probably our best success along with the EU and UK ban on sow stalls. Given the sheer scale of the egg-laying flock that was until recently in battery cages it's an extraordinary development in animal welfare to see this inhumane system banned across the European Union."

The battery hen situation will vary from country to country. Battery cages are already banned in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden. Six other states including Portugal, Poland and Romania admit they will not be ready, while France, Spain and Italy, among others, do not know or will not say whether they will meet the deadline.

As a result, British producers and the Government fear that UK poultry farmers, who have spent £400m upgrading their cages, £25 per hen, will be lose out to cheaper, illegal imports. Only one in five eggs eaten here is imported, but most of those slip into less fastidious parts of the food chain: wholesale, catering and manufacturing. The use of imported eggs is highest in Scotch eggs and sandwiches.

British farmers implementing higher standards have been undercut by cheaper imports before. After Britain banned sow stalls in 1999, retailers and processors bought more pork from abroad, with the result that the British pig herd shrank by 40 per cent between 2000 and 2008.

The British Egg Industry Council estimates four in 10 eggs eaten in the UK next year will come from enriched cages. Under Government guidelines, police, prisons and other public sector organisations will be allowed to buy eggs from hens in enriched cages, which the food and farming pressure group Sustain wants to change.

Morrisons is considering using new DNA technology to ensure its eggs are not imported from battery cages.

Battery life: the truth about chicken farms

Measuring two feet long, and stacked in sheds in rows from floor to ceiling, battery cages house thousands of birds and produce eggs at the lowest possible cost. They are among the most efficient forms of agriculture.

But they are cruel. Typically housing four or five birds, they give each hen 550cm sq of space, insufficient for them to express their natural behaviour: flapping their wings, preening, foraging, perching, scratching, dust-bathing and laying eggs in dark areas. In the words of the European Commission's Scientific Veterinary Committee in 1996, battery cages present "inherent severe disadvantages for the welfare of hens". Animal welfare groups describe them as "inhumane". In 1999, the European Union finally deemed them to be unacceptable and from 1 January they will be banned across the EU.

Many British and Continental hens, though, will remain in cages after 1 January because the EU directive allows them to be housed in something called the "enriched cage", which is 37 per cent larger, and contain perches, litter for scratching and darkened boxes for laying. Each cage will house 50 to 80 birds, allowing hens greater space to move around, but the average space per hen will still be small, 750cm sq – little more than a sheet of A4 paper.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
musicYou'll have to ask Taylor Swift first
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
people
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Agent / QA Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Recruitment Genius: C# / XAML Developer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness