11 March 1998
Chickens fly the coop under EU reforms
By Philip Clarke
POULTRY in cages could have their space almost doubled if new proposals on the welfare of laying hens go through unchanged.
Launched by EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler in Brussels today, the proposals demand that all new battery cages built from 1 January, 1999, provide at least 800sq cm of floor space per bird, compared with the present 450sq cm. And by 1 January, 2009, all existing cages would have to meet the higher limit.
But egg producers claim these new limits will be uneconomic.
“A minimum cage size of 800sq cm will spell the end of the battery system. It will be just as cost effective to provide eggs on the floors in barns or free range,” said Andy Oatley, chairman of the UK Egg Producers Association (UKEPRA).
He estimates that the cost of the barn systems to be 15p to 20p/ dozen eggs more expensive than the current battery system, so consumers will pay more.
Increased cage sizes will create more welfare problems, he maintains. Hens will have more room to attack each other and lower stocking densities will lead to loss of temperature in the winter months.
“But it is almost inevitable these new rules will come into force,” Mr Oatley said.
“We have long argued that the battery system is a hygienic method of production. But government and public opinion are against us.”
The Brussels proposals also lay down rules relating to temperature, lighting, availability of food and water and building materials.
“As far as animal welfare is concerned, the use of battery cages generates the strongest negative public reaction, a fact which producers and indeed policy makers would be foolish to ignore,” Mr Fischler said.
He went on to suggest that the provision of grant aid and cheaper cereals following Agenda 2000s Common Agriculture Policy reforms should adequately offset any cost increase incurred by producers.
UKEPRA doubts this. But its overriding concern is that the new legislation will not be enforced evenly throughout Europe.
“We know that the UK is about the only country that enforces the current rules,” Mr Oatley said.
And he is even more worried about the implications of cheaper imports coming into the EU from eastern Europe and the USA.
“In the US, the stocking limit is just 350sq cm. They have seven birds where we have five. They have a huge cost advantage and we will need some import protection if these new rules do come into force.”
Currently 93% of EU egg laying birds are kept in cages.