Doubling cage-size proposals threaten poultry systems
STOCKING rates for laying hens are set to be halved, if new proposals are agreed by farm ministers later this year.
The plans, set out in Brussels last week, call for all new cages to provide at least 800cm sq a bird from Jan 1, 1999 (compared with 450cm sq currently), with all existing cages moved up to 800cm sq from Jan 1, 2009.
They also include rules concerning temperature, food availability and lighting, and call for mandatory labelling of eggs to show which production system has been used.
EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler said the move was essential to counter the strongest negative public reaction to battery systems. He acknowledged that there would be cost implications, but said EU and national grants would help meet the capital costs, while cereal prices should fall under Agenda 2000.
But egg producers claim the new rules would make cage-based systems uneconomic. "A minimum cage size of 800cm sq will spell the end of the battery system," says Andy Oatley, chairman of the UK Egg Producers Association (UKEPRA). "It will be just as cost effective to produce eggs in barns or free range."
He estimates the cost of barn eggs to be 15p to 20p a dozen more, which would have to be passed on to consumers. He is also concerned about the welfare implications, with increased aggression between birds in larger cages, and with lower stocking rates leading to greater heat loss in the winter.
But the biggest worry in the egg industry is that the new rules will not be enforced evenly. "Existing regulations for laying cages, which came into effect in January 1995, are still not being followed throughout the rest of Europe," says Andrew Joret of the British Egg Information Service.
And he called for a ban on imports of cheaper eggs produced in systems with lower welfare standards in other parts of the world. For example, in the US, the minimum cage size is just 350cm sq, giving them a massive cost advantage.
"We might be able to hold our own against this severe competition in the shell egg market, where freshness and traceability are so important," says Andrew Parker of Stonegate Farmers. "But I can see a collapse in the all-important egg product market, where these attributes are less important."
He did not necessarily agree that battery systems would disappear – we are notoriously inventive, he said – but, combined with the devastating effects of the strong £, many producers would be forced out of business.
Currently, 84% of hens are kept in cages in the UK, compared with 93% in the EU. *
By Philip Clarke
Egg producers claim the new rules will make cage systems uneconomic.
Brussels proposals on battery hens:
• All new cages to provide 800cm sq a bird from Jan 1, 1999, (compared with 450cm sq currently).
• Existing cages less than 10 years old to increase to 550cm sq from 2004.
• Existing cages over 10 years old must be approved by MAFF on a case by case basis from 2003.
• All cages to provide at least 800cm sq a bird from Jan 1, 2009.
• A mandatory labelling scheme to be introduced, showing consumers which system has been used.
NB More rules relate to temperature, lighting, food, water and building materials. Grants may be available.