18 July 2018 | Online since 2003

20 December 2011

Egg ban rage

Leaders of the United Kingdom egg industry reacted with dismay and anger after the Government announced it would not implement a unilateral ban on illegal cage eggs from other countries of the European Union.

A European Union directive outlawing the use of conventional laying cages came into force on January 1, but whilst egg producers in this country have invested millions of pounds in free range and enriched colony production it is estimated that more than a third of hens in the EU are still in conventional cages. The EU Commission says it will begin infraction proceedings against those who break the rules, but such proceedings are painfully slow to enforce. The UK egg industry fears that eggs from illegal hens could find their way onto the UK market, unfairly undercutting law-abiding producers here. It has been pressing for a trade ban, but that has now been ruled out.

In a statement released shortly before Christmas, Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said that the UK Government was relying on the UK food industry to reach a ’voluntary consensus’ that they would not 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."

Both the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association (BFREPA) and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) described the decision as disappointing. The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) went further. It accused the Government of ’chickening out’ on its promise to protect UK egg producers.

Mark Williams, chief executive of the BEIC, said, "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. That way, British consumers will know exactly what they are getting."

John Retson, chairman of BFREPA, expressed his frustration at the Government’s failure to impose a ban on the importation of illegal eggs. "I am disappointed that we have not got something more concrete in place to give us some control over these imports," he said. "It seems now that we are relying on assurances of retailers that they will use only welfare friendly eggs."

John said that British egg producers had spent vast amounts of money investing in welfare friendly egg production, and BFREPA, the NFU and BEIC had spent time and money lobbying on their behalf to persuade politicians of the need to protect them from illegal egg imports. "I think we have been left very exposed," he said.
In a statement released after the Minister’s announcement, the BEIC said that British egg producers had invested £400 million in phasing out battery cages, but producers in 13 other EU countries, including Spain, Italy and Poland, had ignored the EU ban.

It said that more than 90 per cent of British Lion cage eggs already came from new, enriched colony cages and all would be up to the new standards by 1 January, but it was estimated that more than a third of EU cage egg production would break the new rules, with 84m hens still kept in illegal battery cage conditions.

The BEIC said that imports into the UK of illegally produced eggs, egg products, and foods containing illegal eggs could cripple the UK egg industry. It said the Government’s decision would also allow eggs 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 and imported from other EU countries. This would mean that UK consumers could be eating eggs from battery hens, cheap illegal eggs would undermine the British egg industry and thousands of jobs could be lost.
Mark Williams said, "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."

The Government insisted that whilst no agreement on enforcement had been reached within the EU, tough action would be taken in this country. Jim Paice said the British government had been working closely with the domestic egg industry, processors, food manufacturers, the food service sector and retailers to reach a voluntary consensus that they would not sell or use battery-farmed eggs.
He said, "It is unacceptable that after the ban on battery cages comes into effect, around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions.
"We have all had plenty of time to make these changes, but 13 EU nations have not done so. The UK egg industry alone has spent £400million ensuring hens live in better conditions. It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law.

"British shoppers should be reassured that as long as they buy food containing eggs from those companies who have guaranteed not to use or sell eggs from battery cages, they will be supporting higher welfare standards and British egg producers."

He said the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) would use ultra violet light to identify batches of eggs that were not laid in the new, more welfare friendly cages. Any eggs found to have been laid in the old battery cages would not be allowed to be sold as class A eggs. He said that with many retailers and major food suppliers putting in place stringent traceability tests to guarantee they would not supply eggs produced from illegal conventional cages or use them as ingredients in their own brand products, it would be difficult for producers who had not complied with the EU directive to find an outlet in the UK.

"We’re taking action to protect UK consumers and the egg industry by hitting producers who flout the law where it hurts – in their pockets," he said.

"I want to congratulate the many major supermarkets and food businesses who have joined with us to stand up for animal welfare by saying they won’t sell or use eggs produced in battery cages, making it far less likely that the British public will be buying them."

NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns said that whilst the NFU welcomed the enforcement measures being taken by the Government, members would be bitterly disappointed that it had not been possible to take tougher action.
"We are concerned that although the Government has repeatedly pledged its support for the industry, it cannot prohibit the use of illegal egg products and food manufactured from such products. Although we are pleased to see the support of some UK retailers and food manufacturers on this, there are still a number of companies who have yet to make this commitment. Further to this, we would like to see retailers and food manufacturers showing their support for the whole of the British egg industry by offering a fair price for all legal eggs and egg products to recognise the investment that has been made in all production systems in readiness for January 1.

"The UK egg industry should not be disadvantaged for embracing new higher welfare systems and the Government’s announcement is not what UK egg producers needed after they have invested so heavily and met the requirements of the law."

The BEIC said that 11bn eggs were eaten each year in the UK - 31m every day - and more than 23,000 people were directly or indirectly employed in egg production in the UK. More than half of the egg went for food manufacturing (24 per cent) and catering (30 per cent) - often from imported eggs. It was feared that illegal eggs would be used in the production chain because they were cheaper.
The BEIC said that although many retailers and food manufacturers had indicated their wish to comply, there were still many to do so and it was the responsibility of governments to ensure egg production was compliant with the law. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the main difficulty would be ensuring that imported shell or processed egg used in manufacturing and catering products would be compliant.


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