Leading Article: Let the consumer lead the way on battery eggs

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The Independent Online
TWO distinct questions have become intertwined in the debate over battery eggs. One is practical: will hens that are allowed to roam freely produce tastier and healthier eggs than those fed on chemicals and imprisoned in wire cages? The other is moral: can it be right, whatever the practical advantages of battery farming, to subject hens to such apparently cruel conditions?

The report in today's Veterinary Record provides a resounding answer to the second question. Their investigations showed that hens in battery farms show clear symptoms of suffering - leading 'beyond reasonable doubt' to the conclusion that keeping hens in cages is 'extremely distressing (to them) in many different ways'. No one who reads the report will be able to eat a battery egg with a clear conscience.

But establishing that battery farming is cruel does not necessarily provide a convincing argument for making it a criminal offence. Society allows many animals to be maltreated, from young cows kept in the dark so their flesh stays white to goldfish sold at fairgrounds in undersized and overheated plastic bags. Moreover, successive restrictions are always vulnerable to the objection that nothing short of banning leather gloves and making veganism compulsory is morally consistent.

A wiser solution is to entrust the job of discouraging battery farming to British consumers themselves. At the moment, the rules on egg labelling are so confusing as to be useless. A recent survey discovered that very few consumers understand the difference between 'free-range' and 'perching-barn' eggs (which are produced under more humane conditions) and 'country-fresh', a label that can be applied to any type of egg.

Rather than attempting a new form of words to describe humane egg production, and spending large sums to explain the new labelling to consumers, the Government could choose a simpler alternative. It should require producers to label battery eggs as such, with the word 'battery' printed as large as the word 'eggs' - even when the eggs are merely an ingredient in prepared foods. Hopefully, consumers will increasingly opt for less cruel methods of egg production, and it will be the profit motive rather than the threat of prosecution that leads farmers to be kinder to their animals.