Time is running out to introduce higher stocking densities on free-range units ahead of the 2012 cage ban, warned Free-Range Egg Association chairman Tom Vesey last month.
He voiced his concerns against the backdrop of news that researchers at Bristol University would now be conducting research to investigate any welfare implications of the higher range densities.
The industry has been clamouring for an increase in range stocking density from 1000 to 2000 birds/ha, but Freedom Foods has demanded evidence that there would be no detrimental effect on bird welfare at these higher densities. The Lion scheme has already amended its code since January, and EU regulations allow stocking densities of up to 2500 birds/ha.
The research project will be jointly funded by British Free Range Egg Producers (BFREPA) and Noble Foods, and the results presented to Freedom Foods. The researchers will collect data from three Noble units where trials are already under way at the new range densities.
The project could take up to three years to complete, but the industry is hoping that conclusions can be drawn much more quickly. Noble points out that the trials have already been running for nearly a year and there should be enough data available to reach an assessment straight away.
Mr Vesey believes that the egg industry is facing a crisis and Freedom Food does not feel under any pressure to amend its standards: “We haven’t got that long and are looking at a possible shortage of eggs two years down the line.
“Practically all of our members are tied in with Freedom Food through the major packers.”
Decisions about expansion would need to be made within the next 12 months to allow time for extra capacity to be ready by 2012, he said.
“The RSPCA want us to prove that there is no welfare disadvantage, but it’s almost impossible to prove a negative.
“In practice, the most hens don’t go out all the time and they tend to congregate round the house. Removing half the range furthest from the house won’t make any difference at all,” said Mr Vesey.
BFREPA is carrying out a survey of its members to discover how many would respond to a change in the rules by increasing capacity. “An awful lot of our producers would double, or at least increase bird numbers if they were able to do so.”
If the RSPCA wouldn’t change its stance, the retailers need to be aware that there would be a shortage of eggs unless they abandoned Freedom Food, he went on.
“The RSPCA are being difficult, and we are urging our members to write to them and say so.”
External stocking density
- RSPCA current limit of 1000 birds/ha
- Lion eggs raised its limit to 2000 birds/ha
- The EU upper maximum is 2500 birds/ha