Leading article: Going to work on the egg

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? From the point of view of animal welfare, the answer is the egg. Free-range eggs are selling like hot cakes: last month, for the first time in Britain, shoppers spent more on free-range than on other eggs. Battery farming of laying hens is one of the most accessible examples of animal cruelty. Everyone knows, in theory, that the conditions in which such hens are kept are indefensible. Nearly everyone would prefer, in theory, to buy free-range eggs.

There are two obstacles. One is price; the other is simply maintaining awareness. On the first, the market is finally beginning to work. Free-range production has increased so much that the price difference has reduced. At Tesco yesterday it was 14 per cent. On the second, we hope that our report today will help to bring home to consumers the unhappy truth about intensive egg production. We hope that it will act as a further spur to the market trends that will increase the proportion of free-range eggs sold and further reduce the premium paid. Consumer awareness is reaching a critical mass. Fewer of us fall for "farm fresh" and other marketing ploys; more of us know that the first number of the code stamped on each egg should be 0 (organic free range) or 1 (free range).

We know, too, to look out for free- range egg in the ingredients of other foods – those hot cakes, for example – and in restaurants. On these issues, consumer campaigns such as Compassion in World Farming have done good work. CWF's "Good Egg" awards this week will help raise awareness of surprising progress on the part of brands often regarded as corporate villains. As well as Marks & Spencer, all of whose egg products are free range, and Waitrose (nearly all), CWF praises McDonalds (90 per cent across Europe) and Unilever (Hellmann's mayonnaise will be free range this summer).

Important as consumer activism is, however, this is an issue where the state has a role to play. For years, Parliament and press in this country were convulsed by arguments about fox hunting that ended with a ban in 2005. This newspaper supported the ban, but always recognised that there were more important animal welfare issues – the treatment of animals in food production prime among them.

It is to the shame of both our Government and the leaders of the European Union that consumer preferences are now running ahead of the law. EU law to raise minimum standards for battery hens, providing them with 36 per cent more space, does not come into effect until the end of 2011.

That raises a difficult issue of principle. Should the British Government legislate for higher welfare standards than the rest of the EU? The Independent on Sunday believes that it should. It has done so for pigs (and veal), and British pig farmers have complained for years, with some justice, about cheap imports of bacon, ham and pork from EU countries that allow sow stalls and the castration of piglets without anaesthetic.

Under present EU law, it would not be permissible for Britain to impose a "welfare tariff" on imports from countries with lower standards, but perhaps it should be. Jonathan Shaw, the minister responsible for animal welfare at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should press for this change. Meanwhile, the Government should impose intrusive labelling requirements on imported pork to inform consumers about the conditions in which it was reared.

Eggs and pork are only the beginning of the story, though. The EU has only just agreed a law that will set minimum standards for chickens reared for meat (broilers). That directive comes into effect in 2010, but will not be translated into national law for some time after that. Until then, Britain will remain one of the majority of EU countries that sets no maximum densities for chicken sheds, relying simply on the fact that if conditions are too horrible, the meat will be of unsaleable quality.

We urge our readers to choose free-range chicken where possible, when buying ingredients or eating out. Again, ministers will be going with the prevailing current of public opinion if they show a lead. They should legislate minimum standards and better labelling without waiting for the excruciatingly slow EU processes – made even slower by expensive corporate lobbying.

And we have not even mentioned milk, beef, lamb and fish yet. In each case – approximately in that order – there are animal welfare issues of varying importance. In each case, legislation needs to keep pace with information and awareness.

For all the alarm over rising world food prices, it remains the case that rich countries in Europe can readily afford the small extra cost of farming without cruelty.

Going to work on the egg is just the start.