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Battery Cages, the EU and Beyond

17 November 2011, at 11:54pm

OPINION - In just over six weeks, the conventional battery cage for egg production should be a thing of the past in the EU as the ban on this type of housing for laying hens comes into effect from 1 January 2012. Jackie Linden, senior editor of ThePoultrySite, voices some thoughts on what the ban means for the global egg industry.

At the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 14 November, the European Commission warned member states of the negative consequences of non-compliance over the ban on conventional battery cages for laying hens, and reaffirmed its determination not to postpone the ban and to act firmly against cases of non-compliance. [Click here for more information]

At the meeting, most delegations were reported once again to be in favour of strictly maintaining the deadline for implementing the directive on the protection of laying hens because they consider producers have made huge efforts on this important animal welfare issue and delaying implementation would be unfair on these farmers.

Some other member states, where the directive has not yet been fully implemented, indicated that they will accelerate the process in order to comply with the directive.

At previous meetings, member states had discussed practical solutions to prevent the illegal circulation of eggs not produced in compliance with the law, in order to avoid potential disruption of the egg market at the end of this year. It has been stated that eggs from battery cages after the 1 January deadline may only be sold on the domestic market.

This is going to present huge challenges to member states effectively to implement the directive and prevent 'illegal' sales but governments, including that of the UK, are actively discussing the banning of battery egg imports. [Click here for more information]

The situation is made more challenging by the increasing proportion of eggs being processed and by the decision of the EU to maintain just one code for cage eggs, including those from the accepted colony cages (also known as furnished or enriched cages).

In short, if your breakfast egg has the code '3' on it, how confident can you be come the New Year that it has come for a farm where the hens are kept in more welfare-friendly colony cages rather than barren battery cages? And how will the average consumer understand the distinction?

So what will all this mean for egg supplies in the EU? Failing the miracle of all egg producers in the region converting their facilities to colony cages, barn or free-range by the end of 2011, the EU is facing a severe shortage of 'legal' eggs in the immediate future. That means prices of this basic food item and those processed foods that contain eggs will become even more expensive, just at a time of economic difficulties and uncertainty for so many EU residents.

Can we prevent this situation arising now? It's hard to see how, at this late stage.

Under other circumstances, global trade would take care of the problem but that is an unlikely solution this time. How many countries produce surplus eggs using alternative systems – or could do so by the end of December?

How about the leading poultry meat exporting countries like the US and Brazil? There is a relatively small market for non-cage eggs in the US, supplied by a small minority of producers who have opted for alternatives to battery cages. Whilst the leading egg producers' association, United Egg Producers, has agreed to increase the space allowance for hens, there is no short-term prospect of a ban on battery cages in the US, nor of 'alternative' egg exports to the EU from that country.

In Latin America too, the battery cage is the system of choice for the great majority of egg producers, reports Chris Wright, senior editor of El Sitio Avícola, sister publication of ThePoultrySite. He reports that floor systems are used only rarely and only then when producers cannot afford to invest in cages.

The same applies to nearly all countries outside the EU, even in less developed and developing countries. Excluding village flocks and hobby poultry keepers, the overwhelming majority of the world's laying commercial egg flock is kept in battery cages of one type or another.

One final point: ThePoultrySite has been contacted by an egg producer in Ghana who would like to expand his flock from 2,000 hens to 20,000 and is seeking used battery cages and other equipment to allow him to achieve his goal. There must surely be thousands of egg producers in the EU who would be happy to donate their battery cages to help entrepreneurs in Africa to support their families. Can anyone help?