Open-access content Wednesday 23rd February 2011 — updated 1.53pm, Tuesday 5th May 2020
From 2012, eggs from battery hens will be banned in the EU. FMs searching for an alternative for their catering function can still switch to free range production at nil cost.
by Ian Platt
24 February 2011
The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive comes into force on 1 January 2012. From that date, eggs from hens in barren battery cages (so-called because they are arranged in batteries of rows and tiers) will be banned in the EU.
The ban represents the culmination of a journey which began with the signing of the directive in 1999 to phase out the cages on animal welfare grounds.
Several member states (such as Poland) and pressure groups are pushing for a delay to the ban, however, the EU Commission is standing firm.
The move is significant. There are close to 400m egg-laying hens in the EU, with as many as three-quarters confined to battery cages (in the UK there are 16m caged hens in a population of almost 30m).
A significant amount of battery hen eggs are used in the UK catering industry at present, where the issue has largely avoided the negative publicity generated by the likes of celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver against the major retailers.
What the changes mean
Barren battery cages have floors made of wire mesh and the hens typically have nothing to scratch at (a natural behaviour). Each bird is allowed a minimum floor space of 500cm sq – less than an A4 sheet of paper. Although these cages will be banned, the EU is allowing the use of enriched laying cages (which may also be arranged in batteries) to continue. These provide more area and height than conventional cages – at least 700cm sq per bird – and include a place to nest, a perch, a litter area and a place to dust-bathe.
A recent EU report suggested the cost of switching from barren to enriched cages would be less than one per cent per egg. This would give producers in the UK and Europe an ‘ethical’ marketing advantage.
However, although legal after 2012, the enriched cages are not popular with animal rights groups such as Compassion in World Farming, the Humane Society of the United States, the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the RSPCA, who continue to call for an outright ban on caged hen production.
What FMs need to know
The wellbeing of animals is top of the agenda when it comes to food concerns in the UK. Research from Mintel last May found that animal welfare remained the number one concern, with as many as four in ten (40 per cent) of Britons worried about the issue. And despite the recession, Britons’ appetite for free range eggs has not diminished, with steady year-on-year growth and two billion eggs sold last year.
Consumers really care about free range eggs, so this could be the perfect time to switch to a different production method. As long as the battery issue is addressed and all alternatives (see box) are fully explored, it shouldn’t mean an onerous increase in egg prices.
The ban will be enforced by local authorities under the Welfare of Farmed Animals Act (2007). Poultry farms face fines of up to £2,500 and possible imprisonment for infringement, while operators of packers could be hit with fines of £5,000 if they are found to be mis-selling.
The effect on your business
Some retailers, including supermarkets, have phased out battery hen eggs, but it is not standard practice to use free range in catering.
What do I need to do?
Talk to your catering partner, supplier or in-house team. Establish where your eggs come from – chances are they’ll be from battery hens. But with careful planning there’s no reason why switching to barn or free range eggs should increase costs. While eggs brought from outside the EU will not have been produced with such welfare restrictions, and may be cheaper, the resulting damage to your image, given the public mood, could well prove much more expensive.
A guide to egg production
Laying cage system (battery)
Consists of a series of at least three tiers of cages. These have sloping mesh floors so that the eggs roll forward out of the reach of the birds to await collection. This practice will be outlawed in 2012, although enriched cages will still be allowed.
In the barn system hens are able to move around the area. The EU’s Welfare of Laying Hens Directive stipulates a maximum stocking density of nine hens per square metre of useable floor space for new systems.
For eggs to be termed free range, hens must have continuous daytime access to runs which are covered mainly with vegetation. They have a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.
Hens producing organic eggs are always free range. In addition, hens are fed an organically produced diet and ranged on organic land.
Ian Platt is supply chain general manager at Westbury Street Holdings