Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Ban On Battery Eggs: Not So Eggs-ellent?

This is a piece I originally wrote for the cracking (sorry!) www.lovefood.com,a bout the ban on battery eggs which came into play as of the 1st January next year.

The much awaited ban on battery eggs isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

The New Year brings with it resolutions and an opportunity for change, and January will see millions of us in the UK pledge to ourselves that we’re going to change the way we eat, making use of healthier, greener, more local and more welfare friendly ingredients.

The biggest resolution of its kind this year comes not from individuals, but from the government. The start of 2012 marks the long-awaited ban on producing ‘battery’ eggs in this country.

The official definition of ‘battery’ hens and eggs is contentious, but can effectively be taken to mean any eggs produced in ways not meeting the new ‘minimum welfare standards’, as laid out by the EU. These include giving at least 750cm of cage area per hen, as well as the provision of items such as perches and ‘litter’ so that pecking and scratching are possible. The full details can be seen in this PDF.

It was almost five years ago that the government committed to this 2012 ban, and it was initially met with great support from animal rights activists, bodies such as the RSPCA, and individual householders alike. There is, however, a snag.

The ban was always supposed to be EU wide, and a timeline was given so as to allow countries to adapt their production. Whilst the UK farming industry – backed by the government – has invested an estimated £400 million in order to comply with this legislation, many other European countries are lagging behind.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the key role Britain played in introducing the ban. Farming Minister Jim Paice has commented on how it was figures showing consumers turning in swathes to more expensive, higher welfare eggs that lead the campaign. The likes of M&S and Waitrose stopping selling ‘battery’ eggs has also played its part, not to mention the huge awareness raised by both Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver as part of their TV shows.
Cheaper competition

The lack of cooperation by other EU countries is worrying for the UK, as it poses a major import risk. Countries such as Italy and Spain in particular have not embraced the ban, and will still be producing ‘battery’ eggs come the start of next year. Not complying with new legislations will allow the eggs to be produced more cheaply, and hence open up an import market for UK shops, restaurants and wholesalers wishing to purchase eggs more cheaply than will be possible from within our own country.

This is bad news for local food and the air-miles issue, and it’s bad news for the UK economy generally. For British farmers who’ve invested in complying with the ban, though, it’s potentially devastating news. Supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have verbally committed to not selling imported eggs, but there’s been no word from Tesco, Asda or European discount retailers such as Lidl and Aldi. The temptation for many restaurants, caterers and large-scale food producers to cash in on the savings these eggs offer could also be too great to resist. Liquid and powdered egg products are particularly vulnerable, and in many cases the end consumer may not even be any the wiser.
What’s the solution?

Lobbying by farmers’ unions and activist groups has spurred a reaction from the government, but the solution is anything but clear cut. A ban on imports of ‘illegal’ egg products has been widely bandied about, but there are significant legal hurdles and uncertainties. For one, would this ban include all products that include a trace of egg, or just the eggs themselves? An outright ban would also contravene EU trade policy. Farming Minister Paice has a more emotive argument against an immediate ban: it wouldn’t, he argues, stop the production of these eggs, but rather mean many of them are simply thrown away. No one could view this as a good long-term solution.

Paice has suggested a rather feeble sounding “gentleman’s agreement” to ensure these ‘battery’ eggs don’t cross our border, but it comes with little guarantee. Perhaps it’s down to us, the UK consumer to ensure these eggs don’t detract business from our own, more ethically produced versions. After all, if we don’t buy them, shops won’t sell them. We can also take charge of what eggs are used in restaurants. The RSPCA’s Freedom Food initiative promotes the Simply Ask campaign, which encourages us to do just that. Next time you go out to eat, consider enquiring as to where the restaurant sources its eggs. A nationwide list of those establishments already approved can be found online, and it will continue to grow.

What solutions would you suggest? Is it down to us or down to the government? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Perhaps we’ll all just have to wait until January to see what happens...

>> originally published on www.lovefood.com

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