The EU Directive 1999/74/EC of 19 July 1999 set deadlines for the gradual disappearance of conventional battery cages for laying hens in the European Union. In such systems, still widely used around the world, hens spend their entire miserable life in cages so narrow (in the EU the space allowance was 450 cm² each, less than an A4 page) that they are unable to walk, stretch their wings or perform other basic natural behaviours.


Barn eggs in a German supermarket - Germany, 2014

Barn eggs in a German supermarket - Germany, 2014

The ban on conventional battery cages was a great success – in which I was happy to play a part – and was anticipated by the private standards that had already been established by many private companies. The EU ban triggered similar decisions in various US states, and even more private standards have been established since then, aimed at ending the use of the battery cages. Sadly, conventional battery cages are still in use in most areas of the world, including EU neighbour countries such as Ukraine.


One major fault of the EU Directive is that because of pressure from the Swedish government and the fear many politicians experience when they have to make brave decisions – even when they are long overdue – it has remained possible to build and use so-called “enriched” cages. These are larger cages where the birds have slightly more space each, are kept in larger flocks so the sum of the individual spaces allows some movement, and are given enrichments such as perches and an area for dust-bathing. They are still cages, though, and the living conditions of the birds locked in them are still totally incompatible with their welfare. Now this bad decision is also likely to become a commercial boomerang that will hit EU egg producers.


Boris Belikov, CEO of Ovostar Union, the second-largest producer of eggs and egg products in Ukraine, recently announced: “I am pleased to note that in June 2015 the Company has started first shipments of our products to the European Union.” They produce fresh eggs, liquid eggs and egg powder. What does this announcement mean? A quick look at the Ovostar Union website says it all.

On their Activity page they proudly state that they own “the highest laying hens houses in the Europe” (sic), and the website is full of pictures of hens kept in conventional battery cages, the use of which is now forbidden in the EU: a vast hell for hens.


An EU Regulation has required since 2004 that all eggs and egg packets sold in the EU clearly indicate the production method (from free-range hens, or hens kept in barns, or caged hens), but this obligation doesn’t apply to eggs or egg products used as ingredients, despite many NGO initiatives asking for this perfectly sensible integration of the Regulation.


Therefore, most companies that use free-range eggs tend to communicate this in their list of ingredients or on the packaging, whereas none of those that use eggs from caged hens say so, because this essential information would lose them many customers who either support animal welfare or have understandable concerns about the quality of the product.


This loophole leaves Europe vulnerable to a flood of Ukrainian battery eggs, which will let down animals and EU producers alike.


An amendment to the Regulation, aimed at making it mandatory to communicate on food labels the origin of eggs or egg products used as ingredients would surely help. However, an even better solution would be a ban on the import of eggs produced using methods – like conventional battery cages – that are forbidden in the EU. But is the implementation of such a ban possible?


The establishment of any trade ban is a difficult decision, because they will almost certainly be followed by some other country’s complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that it is a violation of global free trade agreements. This doesn’t mean that a ban based on animal welfare considerations would not be upheld by the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body – it’s happened before – but certain conditions must be met, and consistency is one of them.


For example, quite understandably, an import ban cannot be established on products produced with a system that is still in place in the importing country, and in the case of egg production the difference between conventional and enriched cages is so minimal that it is hard to imagine how anyone could argue that the two systems are not equivalent.


Therefore, allowing the use of enriched cages in the EU has not only been detrimental to millions of hens, but has now become a commercial boomerang for those very producers who have decided to keep hens in cages and who will not be able to compete with cheaper Ukrainian imports.


Hopefully, this situation will lead to more EU producers switching from enriched cages to more humane (free-range, or at least barn) systems, more information being given to consumers on the benefits of non-battery eggs, and more food companies adopting policies aimed at stopping the use of eggs from caged hens.


How are political leaders reacting to this situation? Over the last few years, EU leaders have become increasingly cautious in promoting further progress on animal welfare through new pieces of legislation, claiming that they are focusing instead on ensuring that the existing laws are properly implemented across the 28 Member States. Leaving aside the question of whether even these basic checks are actually happening, anyone can see at a glance that such an approach is not sufficient to properly protect either the welfare of farmed animals or the interests of EU producers.


It would be reassuring to see prompt action taken by representatives of the governments of EU Member States – which sadly still retain excessive power at the national level, and therefore are too heavily influenced by private interests in single constituencies to adopt decisions for the common good of the continent – to fix this situation.


What is needed is a rapid review of the egg-marketing Regulation, aimed at making it mandatory to indicate on food packages or labels the production method of eggs and egg products used as ingredients, together with a review of the Directive on the protection of laying hens, aimed at (rapidly) phasing out enriched cages too. This would pave the way for increased market opportunities for EU egg producers in the short term, and provide more solid legal grounds for the establishment of a future import ban on eggs and egg products produced from caged hens.


EU producers would be better off, EU consumers would be better off, and the main victims of these political and commercial games – the laying hens of the EU – would be better off too.


Will some government get the political ball rolling and score these important goals?


You can read an article about the Ovostar Union announcement on the World Poultry website.




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