Monday, 23 January 2012

Crying fowl.

As the bells chimed midnight on December 31st the law changed right across the EU.  With the adoption of European Union Council Directive 1999/74/EC conventional battery cages for chickens are now banned from the EU and it is illegal to sell battery eggs.
It is still legal to keep hens in cages, but from now on they have to be the new so called Enriched or Colony Cages.  These allow the birds more space and head room and also provide features such as a nesting area, a scratching area and perches for roosting to enrich their lives.
Replacing every battery cage in Europe has been a big project.  Farmers have had 12 years notice in order to comply and in the UK alone the industry calculates that egg producers have spent £400m on converting cages. Nevertheless as the deadline drew near it became clear that many countries would miss the target.  In fact only 13 out of 27 countries were fully compliant by January 1st.  Across the whole of Europe it seems about 14% of producers have failed to comply with the regulations accounting for some 46 million chickens. In the worst lagging countries, Belgium and Italy, fully one third of hens are still in battery cages.
Understandably the British producers, led by the British Egg Industry Council were increasingly concerned about the apparent unfairness of this situation.  Even though the UK is about 85% self sufficient in eggs, BEIC has called for a ban on imports and in fact began legal proceedings against the British government to force it to take action against other countries in the European institutions.  Compliant producers, they argue, have absorbed huge costs already and there is an increased cost of production associated with the enriched cages.  Foreign farmers who have broken the law, they argue, should not be able to benefit by undercutting British producers.
Their righteous indignation took something of a knock when it emerged last week that the UK was among the delinquents.   According to DEFRA, 30 British farms have failed to meet the deadline.  BEIC estimate 150,000 birds may be affected, DEFRA say 1% of the UK flock, which would be more like 350,000.  Either way, the government says they must either comply or cease production by the end of January and the European Commission says 1% or 30% it’s all the same, the UK will be among the fourteen countries receiving letters outlining likely remedial procedures later this month.
I think British indignation is misplaced.  Now I accept that animal welfare is generally better in the UK than many other parts of Europe and British farmers are as good as anyone at implementing EU regulations.  I also accept that the Enriched cages are an improvement on the traditional battery cage.
The old cages had a minimum statutory height of 40cm.  Birds typically stood on a wire floor about 5 to 10 in a cage, each with a minimum 500 cm² space, about the size of a sheet of A4 paper.  They didn’t have enough room to turn around or to stretch their wings properly.  They lived their whole life indoors in artificially regulated light to maximise laying, in sheds which reeked of ammonia from piled up excrement.  The cages were associated with increased incidence of ‘feather pecking’ where birds literally peck each other to death, and the farmers’ response ‘beak trimming’ where young birds actually have their beaks cut off to prevent pecking.  Cages cause stress, disease, high mortality rates and cannibalism.  Surely anything has to be better than that.

The Enriched cages, great name by the way, increase the headroom to 50 cm.  Each cage can now accommodate 60 to 80 chickens, that’s where the word Colony comes from, with each bird allotted an extra 250 cm², one and a half A4 sheets!  The birds usually stand on Astroturf, not wire, and by having specified laying, perching and scratching places the guano problem is dealt with more effectively.  It’s still not exactly the Hilton is it?
Does any of this matter? I mean these are the creatures who famously continue to run around even if you cut their heads off.  How great exactly is their capacity for suffering?
Well yes it does matter, I am not a vegetarian but I respect the animals that feed me.  I believe any amount of needless suffering is too much.  I also do not want my food to be associated with stinking, torture chambers.  I believe that healthy food comes from healthy animals.  Remember this is the system that has given us eggs containing listeria and salmonella.
Thankfully I am not alone.  About 50% of the shell eggs sold in the UK nowadays are ‘free-range’, where chickens actually get the chance to wander outdoors and walk around in the fresh air.  If you consider that commercial purchasers, hotels, schools, hospitals etc. are more likely to buy on price and therefore to buy cage eggs, I would argue that the majority of eggs bought directly by the public are free-range.
Free-range eggs do cost more.  Producers estimate it costs about 22p to make a free-range egg compared with 11p for a battery egg.  The classic argument is choice; let the consumer decide how much animal welfare they want to pay for.  Well I think that the public has chosen.  It is notoriously hard to influence indirect purchases.  Who knows what kind of eggs go in to a Sarah Lee cake or a Tesco quiche?  But when people buy eggs they buy free-range.  Also, why should the public have the right to choose inhumane living conditions for animals in order to shave a few pennies from the family’s grocery bill? What gives us the right to make chickens pay the price so that we can buy an extra packet of fags or half a pint of beer?
Spot the difference - Free-range chickens
Germany got rid of its battery cages five years ago. This year, as the rest of the EU was switching to enriched cages, Germany moved further ahead to be totally cage- free.  It can be done, it’s what the public prefers and it is the future.  I don’t blame British farmers; they operate in a commercial environment and have to be cost conscious.  It’s up to the regulators to set minimum standards and these should be humane, in line with public attitudes and fit for the current era not the 1950s.  We don’t have to wait for the whole EU to agree on this. As Germany has proved you can chose to unilaterally exceed the minimum standards.
Perhaps when all our chickens are free-range, or as the RSPCA put it in their Freedom Food certification, when “every animal reared for food has a happy, healthy life…with an environment that meets their needs…providing a stimulating environment that enables the animals to exhibit their natural behaviour”, then we might have room to be sanctimonious.