Comment: Uncertainty in worlds egg business

By John Farrant

at the International Egg Commision conference, Bergen

FEW countries can plan ahead with any certainty about how they are to produce eggs in future.

Just when they should be able to look forward to better demand for eggs, they do not know whether to invest in enriched cages, floor systems, free range or organic.

If it could be left to the market there would at least be a better chance of rewards where higher costs are involved, but politicians clearly want to interfere and where they dont, the major retail and food service chains are imposing preferences and standards.

The International Egg Commission would like to make some sense of all this by imposing minimum standards of management that would be recognized worldwide.

This may bring some comfort to IEC members that they are doing something to make sense of a confused situation, but it will do little else.

Management is more important than the system in ensuring good bird welfare, which could provide some assurance. But what has to be accepted is that situations will vary widely from one country to another.

There is a clear trend in Europe, for example, for stricter adherence to animal welfare rules from north to less in the south.

The best the IEC can do really is to create greater awareness of the problems of imposed rather than market driven regulations and of real comparisons of the systems in terms of the hens, the people looking after them and of the ultimate cost to the consumer and taxpayer.

The IEC has gone some way down this road already with an advisory booklet on hygienic egg production and a white paper on the whole picture is to be updated.

At its next meeting in London in the spring, Dutch economist Peter van Horne of the Agricultural Research Institute has been asked to come up with a paper on the costs and effects of the EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive in the stages that bite in 2003 and 2012.

Further exchange of information and publicity could come from a seminar on the whole subject of laying-hen welfare in all systems on the two days prior to the next annual conference in Spain, from 22-27 September.

Meanwhile, a report on consumer attitudes and perceptions by Dr Gemma Harper of the University of Reading, commissioned by the EU is due to be completed and could give more transparency.

She has already revealed that although consumers express concern about animal welfare, they tend to say one thing and do another.

It must be in the interests of the IEC and national organizations to ensure that it gets well publicised.

Whether it favours industry claims or not, the report should bring more information into the debate and the more widely it is heard, the more chance there is of realism replacing emotion.

Whichever way it goes, the outcome has to be paid for in the long run.

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