18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

11 December 2017

Chief Vet criticised for saying cage-free pledge a 'regrettable' move

A group of vets has criticised the UK's chief vet Nigel Gibbens' comment

A group of vets has openly criticised chief vet Nigel Gibbens for his suggestion that the cage-free commitment made by leading retailers is "regrettable".

As the The Ranger reported last month, Nigel Gibbens made his comments during the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) in South Wales.

He was speaking about the dilemma between retailers who wanted to move away from cage eggs and the risk of managing free range chickens in areas of the country at greater risk from avian flu.

"You have a retail sector that is committed to not having cage birds by 2025," he said. "I think that is a real challenge for you."

He said: "If there is a serious threat of avian flu we will have to return to housing. If we return to housing we will probably look at the risk and we might just return to housing in higher risk areas.

"Essentially what you are saying is that free range production in those higher risk areas close to significant bodies of water with significant numbers of wild birds is not where you want to be. So I am saying don't do that. And your customers are saying, 'but we want free range' or 'we want non-caged.' Where does that take you?

"Only two per cent of production is barn eggs. Are you going to turn to barn eggs? And if you go to barn eggs what does good welfare look like in barn production? Do we have the science, the metrics, the experience that supports that? We have got to manage that very carefully.

"I think it's a regrettable move. Actually, colony cages have a lot going for them and there is good evidence that that's the case."

'Extremely disappointing'

A group of vets has responded to his comments by writing to The Times. They have described his views as "extremely disappointing."

The letter was signed by 10 vets. They were Marc Abraham, Ines Ajuda, Vicky Bond, Martin Cooke, Dr Bryony Dixon, Dr Mark Jones, Andrew Knight, Dr. Steven P. McCulloch, Dr Richard Saunders and Dr Pete Wedderburn.

In the letter, they said significant progress had been made for animal welfare in recent years, with the majority of UK food businesses committing to move away from cages for laying hens within a specific timeline.
This market shift had come about as a response to increased consumer demand for higher welfare standards, combined with pressure from animal welfare groups.

On Nigel Gibbens' EPIC comments, they said: "To hear such a brazen endorsement of cages by the UK's foremost veterinary advisor - a position which should mean pioneering the safeguarding of the welfare of farm animals - is extremely disappointing.

"The caging of any animal limits their behaviour due to overcrowding and severe restrictions of space, which is seriously detrimental to their welfare. Colony cages do not provide adequately for foraging, perching or nesting, which are fundamental species-specific behaviours for a hen.

"The avoidance of the spread of disease can be solved in other ways than by keeping hens in cages. There are management options such as winter gardens (verandas), enclosed areas which are sheltered from the outdoors but which still allow for freedom of movement and behaviour.

"These offer a viable solution in times of outbreaks and should be encouraged rather than continuing to push cages as an ethical option for hens.

"As vets, we should be driving for improvements beyond cage-free systems, not promoting dated systems that cause suffering to millions of sentient birds.

"We are calling on Mr Gibbens and the Government to take a more progressive position on hen welfare instead of bowing to an industry which is reluctant to change despite consumer demand and ethical reasoning."

'Shrinking minority'

The chief vet's comments also drew criticism from welfare campaigners. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) said that Nigel Gibbens was in a "shrinking minority" that believed colony cages “have a lot going for them.”

CIWF chief executive Philip Lymbery, said: “This is a deeply misguided statement from Nigel Gibbens. So called enriched cages may be an improvement on the banned barren battery cage, but when you see the way these cages still leave hens crammed in, with barely any space to stretch their wings and express their natural behaviours, it’s clear that a cage is still a cage.”

A CIWF statement said: "We want to see the UK's government act as animal welfare leaders, not laggards, and assign the cage to the history books once and for all.

"Instead of criticising those retailers and businesses showing enlightenment and forward-thinking, our government should be congratulating them on their leadership and supporting their transition to go cage-free."

All the major retailers in the United Kingdom have said that they will stop selling cage eggs by 2025. Many leading foodservice companies have made the same commitment, although the egg industry is still trying to understand what will replace the existing enriched cages when the retailers abandon them.


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