Officials meeting in Brussels yesterday have again avoided any concrete action to enforce the conventional cage ban for laying hens, placing the businesses of millions of farmers in the UK and EU at risk of being subverted by cheap eggs from producers who haven’t installed enriched cages.

The EU executive said at yesterday’s meeting they will send letters to the 11 member states whose producers are expected not to be ready for the ban when it comes into force on 1 January 2012, asking them to update the commission on their progress in converting.

“With the cut-off date looming, it really is unacceptable that the commission is not able to enforce a regulation on animal welfare. British farmers who have invested in new systems and met their obligation will be put at risk,” said farm minister Jim Paice, who attended the meeting.

“I fully understand why other countries who have complied with the rules reject any compromise. However, that would mean the destruction of millions of eggs every week, which would not be right.

“That is why the idea of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to ensure that eggs from illegal cages do not leave the country of origin, seems the least worst option.”

One other option, suggested by EU health commissioner John Dali, is that eggs be kept for industrial uses inside the member state in which they were produced. This suggestion or a “gentleman’s agreement” would be reliant on member states’ co-operation and wouldn’t have any legal backing.

During the meeting, representatives of the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom spoke, arguing against any derogation to the ban, while Portugal, one of the 11 non-compliant nations, argued the ban won’t stop eggs from countries outside the EU, and outside the ban, being imported.

Mr Paice said he would be meeting representatives of the UK egg sector tomorrow to find out if there is any way they could act alone to ban illegal eggs coming into the country.

NFU chief poultry advisor Kelly Watson said her organisation would continue to push for a total ban on illegal eggs.

“Anything other than a unilateral ban on illegally produced eggs will be unacceptable to our poultry farmers,” said Ms Watson.  

“Member States have had 12 years to comply with this directive and yet we are told by the European Commission that 11 countries and 51 million hens will be in illegal cages on 1 January, 2012.  

“In good faith the UK poultry industry has invested £400 million to comply with the new rules and it is therefore vital that illegal eggs and egg products from Europe are banned from entering the UK market and undercutting our producers.”   

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