By Mike Parker

PHASING OUT battery cages in the European Union (EU) will only work if egg imports from third countries are subject to the same controls, agriculture minister Nick Brown has admitted.

Mr Brown, who has already made it clear that he dislikes the cage system, told egg farmers at the NFU annual conference in London last month, “It would be just bizarre for the European Union to take some new decision that effectively exported the (egg) industry.

It would do nothing for animal welfare and nothing for the poultry industry in Europe.

“Those who believe in animal welfare are poultry producers and I am determined that we are not going to export our industry. I am also determined that we are going to make progress on animal welfare issues.”

He promised comprehensive action that recognised the external realities of free trade.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the wider international dimension cannot be ignored. Improvement in welfare across the European Union cannot be allowed to be undermined by imports produced to lower standards. It is certainly not fair to producers and we intend to work with the rest of the EU on these vital issues,” said the minister.

With this in mind, the Commission has been asked to report by June on the welfare situation in third countries and on the use of antibiotic feed ingredients outlawed in the EU.

He told meat delegate James Hook that the Commissions report would be the cornerstone of developments in this year.

Mr Hook pointed out that the industry was losing, because of public health concerns, four growth promoters “which are very useful to our industry.

“Please assure us that we will not be subjected to imports from third countries where these products are still available. It sounds very like double standards,” he suggested.

The Minister warned egg delegates that the European Parliaments vote for a cage ban by 2009 would clearly influence the Commission, but ultimately it was the Council of Ministers who had the last word.

  • Mr Brown accepted an invitation to visit a cage unit run by north-east egg delegate Norman Atkinson. Mr Atkinson, who farms just outside the ministers Newcastle East/Wallsend constituency, said he would show Mr Brown some 10,000 birds in 10-year-old Potter cages in a deep-pit house. If he had called two years ago he could have seen 30,000 birds, but the disastrous prices of 1997 had caused his company, McCutcheon Eggs, to cut back to current levels.