New EU egg laws put farmers in firing line

The ongoing financial crisis is not stopping Brussels from tightening the screws on Europe's economies. On January 1, 2012, the “Welfare of Laying Hens” directive made the businesses of 30 per cent of European egg producers illegal.

­The directive bans the use of battery cages for hens, and requires at least 750 square centimeters of cage space per hen.

“That's good for the hens, but not so much for the people working on this farm,” says the owner of the Eierveiling Egg Farm, Michel Van Hees.

Some European producers, especially medium and small, will completely stop producing eggs, predicts secretary general of the European Egg Processors Association Filiep Van Bosstraeten.

“They will look at the amount of investment to make and they will say, “No thank you. I will not work the rest of my life to pay the bank,”  was how he explained the unwelcome scenario for the EU's already crisis-hit countries.

The EU wants all chicken farms to have so-called “enriched cages,” in which hens are no longer confined to small spaces, and can move around. But farmers say it is a lot more work, and hens tend to excrete waste everywhere. They also now have to train hens to lay eggs in a special nest, another difficult task.

But the issues extend beyond the cages.

Cake manufacturers in France, for example, have called for urgent help after several farms were forced to stop egg production for failing to comply with the rules, driving prices up by as much as 75 per cent in just four months.

In Belgium, unions say prices have more than tripled since January, a level not seen since the 2003 avian flu outbreak. And while there is a lot of noise being made over the new rules, in fact, farms in 13 countries including Belgium and France still have not complied.

The European Commission has launched infringement procedures against these states, which could go all the way to the European Court of Justice if needed.

“The fact that we have launched the procedure is a clear sign that the Commission will not back down,” said spokesman Frederic Vincent.

In the meantime, cheaper, illegal eggs could still make their way onto the market, much to the dismay of more obedient member states.

“In our country, [producers] have spent 400 million pounds of their own money getting their production systems legal,” says UK’s Independent Party member Stuart Agnew. “Of course they've been very, very worried when they look across the English Channel and they see at least 50 million birds still in the old, illegal battery cages, with no immediate prospect of them coming out. That is what the British producers are so upset about – that it pays to disobey the law.”