Laying Hen Husbandry in Germany

With the judicial authorities currently investigating farm operators suspected of violating regulations on egg production, the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection has published a review of egg production methods and their control in the country.
calendar icon 9 April 2013
clock icon 11 minute read

According to the Oldenburg public prosecutor's office, the main allegation is that conventional and organic farms were illegally overstocking the housing systems for laying hens.

How are laying hens kept in Germany?

In recent years, the husbandry systems for laying hens in Germany have undergone fundamental changes with significant overall improvements. This is primarily due to the fact that housing in conventional battery cages has been banned in Germany since 1 January 2010 – two years earlier than the deadline laid down in EU legislation. Since then, it has only been permitted to keep laying hens in small-group housing systems, barn and free-range systems or in organic production systems.

Major changes in production structures have taken place in Germany. In 2008, around 60 per cent of all laying hens were still kept in conventional cages and small-group housing systems. Following the ban on conventional cages, the proportion of laying hens kept in small-group housing systems and 'enriched cages' is now just 13 per cent, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

As of 1 December 2012, a total of 36.6 million laying hens were kept in Germany. (The figures include farms with space for at least 3,000 hens). This is 7.5 per cent more than in December 2011. There was a particularly sharp rise in organic production with a 17 per cent increase between 2011 and 2012. However, it is worth noting that this growth started from a relatively low level. There were also increases in the number of laying hens kept in barns (up 9.1 per cent) and free-range systems (up 8.7 per cent). Meanwhile, the number of laying hens kept in cages was down 4.5 per cent.

The current overall housing capacity can accommodate around 42 million hens. 26.8 million of these spaces (64 per cent) are in barn systems, 6.1 million (14.6 per cent) are in free-range systems, and 5.5 million (13.2 per cent) are in enriched cages and small-group housing systems. Around 3.4 million spaces (8.2 per cent) are in organic production.

How many eggs are produced in Germany?

In the first 11 months of 2012, the total number of eggs produced was 9.7 billion – 9.9 per cent more than in the same period of the previous year. Taking 2012 as a whole, the Federal Statistical Office expects almost 10.6 billion eggs to be produced.

What type of eggs are sold the most in Germany?

The relative growth or decline of different housing types reflects changes in consumer behaviour.

Most consumers in Germany buy eggs from barn hens (64 per cent of all household purchases). This is followed by free-range eggs at around 25 per cent, organically-produced eggs at around 9 per cent, and eggs from small-group housing systems at around three per cent. Purchases of organically-produced eggs in 2011 were up by around 30 per cent on 2010, while the purchase of eggs from small-group housing systems fell by almost 40 per cent.

How many eggs are consumed in Germany?

A total of 17.338 billion eggs were consumed in Germany in 2011. This corresponds to an annual consumption of 212 eggs per person.

What rules apply to the stocking of laying hen houses and the size of outdoor runs?

According to the Farm Animal Husbandry Ordinance, no more than nine hens per square metre may be kept in barn/free-range housing and 12 hens per square metre in small-group housing. The legal requirements for organic farming contain the following provisions on housing space for laying hens: no more than six hens may be kept per square metre of housing space. In addition, perch space of least 18cm must be provided per hen. An outdoor run of at least four square metres per bird must also be available.

The Farm Animal Husbandry Ordinance contains no specific provisions about outdoor runs for laying hens in conventional free-range systems. But as with organic farming, outdoor runs of at least four square metres per bird apply to conventional free-range production. This results from the regulations contained in the Egg Marketing Standards.

What special requirements must organic egg producers fulfil in terms of animal husbandry?

In organic farming, the only husbandry option for chickens is free-range. Each bird must be provided with at least four square metres of outdoor space. Organic chickens are not allowed to be kept in cages. Beyond this, the following stipulations apply:

  • At least one-third of the floor area must be solid. In other words, it may not be slatted or perforated, and it must be covered with litter material such as straw, wood shavings, sand or turf.
  • The housing facilities for laying hens must provide perches and exit/entry popholes in line with the required minimum size.
  • Each poultry house may contain no more than 3,000 laying hens. No more than six laying hens may be kept per square metre of usable space in the housing facility (not including aisles, for example). Raised platforms in aviary housing and 'winter gardens' can be counted as housing space if the animals have permanent access to them.
  • The birds must have constant unrestricted access to open space, weather and ground conditions permitting. This access must be provided during at least one-third of the bird's lifetime. The outdoor runs must be predominantly covered in vegetation and must include protective structures, e.g. trees, shrubs and appropriate shelters.
  • Artificial light in the housing facilities is used to promote egg-laying performance. For organic laying hens, artificial and natural light should not exceed a combined total of 16 hours per day.

What extra requirements apply to organic farms with laying hens?

Farmers who keep organic chickens and sell organically-produced eggs must comply with a number of special conditions. For example, the animals must always be fed with organic feeds, i.e. feedstuffs that are produced in accordance with the strict EU regulations on organic farming. Furthermore, the following rules on feeding must be observed in line with the EU legislation on organic farming:

  • As far as possible, the animal feed should be produced by the farm itself in order to keep the farming cycle as closed as possible.
  • On average, up to 30 per cent of the feed ration (measured in terms of dry weight) may consist of in-conversion feedstuffs. This means that forage area must comply with the rules of organic farming for at least 12 months prior to harvesting. Where the farm itself has produced the in-conversion feedstuffs, these may account for up to 100 per cent of the ration.
  • Roughage, fresh or dried fodder or silage must be added to the daily ration.
  • Alongside organically-produced feed, limited amounts of non-organic protein feed of agricultural origin (up to five per cent of the dry weight) may be used for a transitional period until the end of 2014 in cases where feeding with protein feed from organic farming is not exclusively possible.
  • Authorised mineral feedstuffs and feed additives are named in restricted positive lists in the annexes of the EU legislation governing organic farming.

Apart from the above-mentioned rules, the EU legislation on organic farming contains a series of further regulations both general and specific on animal husbandry. In some cases, the guidelines laid down by specific organic growers associations are even stricter, often going beyond the EU's ecological standards.

What rules govern the labelling and sale of eggs?

Since January 2004, all Class A eggs must be stamped with a producer code that identifies the production method and origin. The meaning of the producer code must be explained – at the point of sale with loosely-sold eggs and on the packaging with packaged eggs. The producer code allows each egg to carry specific information about its production method and origin.

What does the code on the egg mean?

The producer code has the following structure:

1. Method of production

0 = Organic
1 = Free-range
2 = Barn
3 = Caged

2. Country (origin)

Two letters for the EU member state in which the egg was produced. For example:

AT = Austria
BE = Belgium
DE = Germany
NL = Netherlands

3. Farm ID

Each member state has set up a system whereby a unique number is assigned to a specific farm. Additional digits can be added to identify the individual flock/housing unit./p>

Example of a German producer code: 1-DE-0212341

1 = Method of production: Free-range
DE = Country of origin: Germany
0212341 = Farm number, whereby the two first digits identify the Federal Land, the third to sixth digits identify the farm, and the seventh digit identifies the housing unit.

The Federal States have the following codes:

01 = Schleswig-Holstein
02 = Hamburg
03 = Lower Saxony
04 = Bremen
05 = North Rhine-Westphalia
06 = Hesse
07 = Rhineland-Palatinate
08 = Baden-Württemberg
09 = Bavaria
10 = Saarland
11 = Berlin
12 = Brandenburg
13 = Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
14 = Saxony
15 = Saxony-Anhalt
16 = Thuringia

Publication of farm ID numbers

The identification system for eggs is mandatory throughout the EU. While the first two segments serve to provide consumers with information, the farm ID number is solely intended for the relevant inspection agencies (rather like a vehicle number plate). There is no provision in the market organisation legislation for government authorities to publish these farm ID numbers in conjunction with the name and address of the respective farms. This would contravene data protection rules.

Consumers wishing to obtain further information about a particular farm should contact the company or organisation named on the packaging. Some of these companies and organisations provide an online service whereby consumers can enter the code stamped on the egg for more information about the particular egg-producing farm.

What special rules govern the labelling and sale of organic eggs?

The labelling of organic products must include the code number of the relevant inspection agency for organic products. The code numbering system for inspection agencies based in Germany is: DE-ÖKO-000. 'DE' stands for Germany and '000' is the three-digit code of the inspection agency.

When retailers buy organic eggs, a valid certificate must be presented. This is to confirm that the supplier/producer was subject to continuous checking by an authorised inspection agency. On receipt of the goods, the recipient should also ensure that the delivery note, the invoice and the product all include precise indications of organic status. Furthermore, this incoming goods inspection must be documented.

Only those producers, importers and processing companies that comply with the legal requirements for organic farming and that undergo the prescribed inspections are authorised to market their products as 'bio' or 'organic'.

Organic farms must keep exact records of all inputs and outputs. In other words, they must precisely record what they bought from whom, and what they sold to whom. This makes it possible to trace organic products back to the respective producer.

Who is responsible for inspecting farms?

Due to Germany's federal structure, responsibility for inspecting all farming enterprises – both conventional and organic – lies with the authorities of the Länder (federal states).

In this respect, the Länder act within their own jurisdiction in monitoring farms and penalising operators who fail to comply with the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act and the legislation on food and animal feed.

How are organic farms monitored?

The EU legislation on organic farming sets down precise requirements for the production and manufacturing of agricultural produce and foods that are labelled as organic products. The task of monitoring the regulations – including adherence to the provisions of animal welfare and the EU regulation on organic farming – is the responsibility of the Länder authorities in each region. According to the constitution, the Länder are responsible for food inspection and market surveillance in Germany. Violations of applicable regulations are a serious matter and must be penalised by the Länder authorities.

Special inspection procedures exist to ensure compliance with the EU legislation on organic farming. In Germany, these inspections are carried out by private inspection agencies that are state-approved and state-monitored. Due to Germany's federal structure, responsibility for the 20 approved inspection bodies currently operating in the market lies with the supervisory authorities of the Länder. In the event of concrete violations, the responsible Länder authorities must take decisive action. The same applies to violations of the generally valid regulations of the food and animal feed legislation and the Animal Welfare Act, which organic farms are naturally obliged to observe just as strictly as conventional farms.

The officially approved private inspection agencies check each farm at least once a year or more often if required. The checks take the form of risk-oriented procedural inspections which are conducted on site and supplemented in individual cases by elements of final product inspection. Samples and residue analyses are also performed on a random basis. However, if there are reasonable grounds for suspicion, these tests are performed automatically.

Further Reading

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April 2013

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