British MPs have had a heated exchange with EU officials, expressing their shock at the optimistic view being taken by the European Commission on the extent to which continental egg producers will comply with the conventional cage ban from the end of this year.
Representatives of the EU’s health directorate, DG SANCO, told members of the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in Westminster member states had a deadline of 1 April to submit their latest conversion figures. But they had no power to ensure this information was delivered on time.
“What we will have on 1 April is a snapshot,” said senior EU official, Dr Harry Vassallo. But, while he would like more detail, a clearer picture would emerge over the coming months.”
Dr Vassallo told the committee the strong stance the commission took on the cage-ban last year, turning down Poland’s request for an extension, sent a message to producers across the EU. “We have no reason to believe this warning has not reached everywhere.”
But MPs lambasted the EU officials for what they said was a “naive” view of conversion rates and an overly optimistic belief in member states’ willingness to co-operate.
“I’m actually fascinated that you think, for once, our good European neighbours are going to comply with something. The history of UK agriculture with our European neighbours is that they don’t comply,” said Thomas Docherty MP(Lab).
Head of cabinet at DG SANCO, Joanna Darmanin, said the commission was looking at its options about what to do in the event of widespread non-compliance.
“There is the issue of an inter-community trade ban. There are discussions with the legal service to see if that is possible, or a proportionate measure.
“There are also infringement proceedings. They do take a long time, but they are a way of imposing fines. But it is, if you like, a rather draconian message.”
UK farming minister Jim Paice also spoke before the committee. “We stand with those producers in this country who have made the investment,” he said. “We have been pressing the commission to act for some months, because it’s been abundantly clear a number of countries are not making the progress that is necessary.
“What we want to see is an intra-community trade ban, so that any country that hasn’t converted should be banned from exporting its eggs.”
“There are clear challenges with enforcement, but the people who will ensure this ban is as good as possible are retailers, processors and consumers,” said RSPCA communications director, David Bowles.
Andrew Joret, director of Noble Foods, had reservations about the ability to implement a trade ban. “Even if it is in place, we have to ask ‘what sort of policing mechanisms exist?’ That’s really our big concern – that there will be seepage and leakage.”