Egg industry slams UK Government

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has accused the UK Government of ‘chickening out’ on its promise to protect UK egg producers who have complied with a new EU law designed to improve the welfare of laying hens. The new legislation will prohibit the use of conventional ‘battery’ cages from 1 January 2012.

British egg producers have invested £400 million on phasing out battery cages, but producers in 13 other EU countries, including Spain, Italy and Poland, have ignored the EU ban.  

More than 90% of British Lion cage eggs already come from new, enriched colony cages and all will be up to the new standards by 1 January, but it is estimated that more than a third of EU cage egg production will break the new rules, with 84m hens still kept in illegal battery cage conditions next year.

The British egg industry has repeatedly urged the UK Government to take tough action and ban imports into the UK of illegally produced eggs, egg products, and foods containing illegal eggs, from 1 January 2012 - or risk crippling the UK egg industry.   

Yet a statement today by Agriculture Minister Jim Paice says that the UK Government is relying on the UK food industry to reach a ‘voluntary consensus’ that they won’t sell or use battery-farmed eggs.   He said that the Government “has thoroughly investigated the possibility of taking unilateral action and bringing in a UK ban on all imports of egg and egg products which have been produced in conventional cages in other Member States.  However, given the very significant legal and financial implications of introducing such a ban, coupled with practical difficulties in enforcing it, it is not a realistic option”.  

His statement would also allow eggs which are found to be produced from illegal battery cages to continue to be used by UK food manufacturers in products such as quiche, egg mayonnaise and Scotch eggs, or to be contained in finished foods containing eggs, imported from other EU countries.
This will mean that UK consumers could be eating eggs from battery hens, with the prospect that a flood of cheap illegal eggs will undermine the British egg industry, with the possible loss of thousands of jobs.

Mark Williams, Chief Executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), commented: “The UK egg industry feels totally let down by the Government. Whilst we have received repeated platitudes of support from Defra, it has failed to back these up with any real action. We need to see a complete ban on any illegally produced eggs, egg products and foods containing illegal eggs from 1 January 2012. That way, British consumers will know exactly what they are getting.

“Our legal advice has confirmed that the UK Government is able to enforce UK and EU law by banning illegal eggs and egg products – so why have they chickened out?

“EU member states have had more than 12 years to get their houses in order and comply with the new legislation, so there should be no excuses.  British egg producers have invested heavily to meet their legal obligations - only to see their efforts jeopardised by an apparent lack of political will.”

We eat more than 11bn eggs a year – 31m every day – and more than 23,000 people are directly or indirectly employed in egg production in the UK.  
More than half of the UK egg need is for food manufacturing (24%) and catering (30%) – often from imported eggs – with the fear that illegal eggs will be used in the production chain because they are cheaper.

BEIC says that although many retailers and food manufacturers have indicated their wish to comply, there are still many to do so, and it is the responsibility of governments to ensure egg production is compliant with the law. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the main difficulty will be in ensuring that imported shell or processed egg used in manufacturing and catering products will be compliant.  

British egg producers have invested heavily in modern production techniques to offer the highest food safety standards in the world, as well as high animal welfare. All this has been achieved without direct subsidies from the EU or the UK Government.

Mark Williams said: “If action is not taken, the British egg industry could go the way of our pig industry, which has suffered a dramatic decline over the last decade because of new rules which the UK introduced ahead of other countries.”

The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive (Council Directive 1999/74/EC), which applies to establishments with over 350 laying hens, provides that conventional battery cage systems must not be used after 1 January 2012. After this date, caged hens must be kept in 'enriched' cages, which have more living space per hen (750 cm2 cage area per hen compared to 550 cm2 in conventional battery cages), more height, a nest, perching space and litter to allow pecking and scratching. In the UK, producers have installed larger ‘colony’ cages housing between 40-80 birds, which allows better use of the shared space. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that enriched cages result in a significant improvement in hen welfare compared to conventional cages.