Are New EU Egg Laws Scrambled?

Date: 21/01/12

Under the EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive, EU member states had until the 31st December 2011 to ensure that cages and welfare conditions of laying hens meet new standards, which include a ban of the conventional ‘battery cages’ for laying hens. However, there are a number of member states which have openly refused to comply with the new rules and even those that thought they were prepared for the changes are at risk of breaking the law. With this in mind, Siân Wall, DWF LLP Regulatory Associate, looks at how Europe is responding to the new guidelines and what needs to be done to ensure that all egg producers are operating in a fair and open market.

Pass the buck

EU member states had almost 13 years to prepare for the ban on housing hens in battery cages and some countries have spent considerable sums on trying to comply with the new laws. In the UK, for example, egg producers invested more than £400m on preparing for the new legislation, replacing battery cages with ‘enriched’ cages that are designed to increase the welfare of the laying hens  – and the additional expenditure doesn’t stop there. It is thought that the cost of producing ‘enriched’ cage eggs is eight per cent higher than the now outlawed battery cage eggs.

Ordinarily, we would expect such incurred production costs to be passed on to the consumer. However, with around 13 EU member states, which collectively produce approximately 40 million eggs a day, actively flouting the new rules, many egg producers will feel under pressure to absorb the costs themselves. This is not a sustainable way of operating for any significant period of time and could have fatal consequences for the egg producers in question.

Cracks in the system

The UK egg production industry has been highly critical over these non compliant Member States and the UK Government’s response to it. Unfortunately, it now transpires that cracks in the UK system have already started to appear. In a highly embarrassing turn, on the 13th January 2012, it emerged that around 30 farms in Britain were still using battery cages, collectively housing up to 500,000 hens.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming’s chief policy adviser, said: “The Government and the British egg industry always said that British egg producers would be ready on time. I’m sure they meant it sincerely and they’ve been badly let down by these 30 or so egg producers.”

He added: “What government must now do is take urgent steps to make sure these producers comply very quickly with the ban or get out of egg production.”

With many countries not yet having a formal framework of enforcement in place, it could well materialise that other member states find themselves in a similar situation to the UK and it will be interesting to see how different governments and the EU responds.

Egg enforcement

Before it transpired that some egg producers in Britain were infringing the law, there had been a lot of pressure on the Government to take their own action in the fight against illegally produced eggs.

The UK agriculture minister Jim Paice had said that “taking unilateral action” and banning all imports of egg and egg products that haven’t been produced ‘legally’ by other member states was “not a realistic option”. The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) reacted to this by starting judicial review proceedings, believing the decision not to ban non-compliant eggs to be legally flawed.

News that some British egg producers have been breaking the law could now  prompt the BEIC to reconsider its judicial review proceedings. The latest industry developments could also lead to Trading Standards Departments across the UK bringing enforcement action to enforce the ban. However, the issue remains that a substantial quantity of eggs produced in the EU remain non compliant. However red-cheeked the industry may be at the recent reports, the issue of persistent non compliance and the effect on legal egg producers still needs resolution.

Lay down the law

Whether member states have been refusing to comply with the new legislation, or whether they’ve been caught out by a handful of rogue farmers, the message from the EU is that they better act sooner rather than later to rectify the situation.  

In December 2011, the EU health commissioner, John Dalli, announced that member states will face legal action by the EC if they fail to comply with the laws prohibiting caged battery eggs. The member states which have failed to take the necessary steps to comply with the law have received warning letters advising them to ensure compliance or face prosecution. EC inspectors are expected to meet member states in early 2012 to gather evidence for possible prosecutions.

While there is support at EU level to ensure that there is an even playing field between egg producers across Europe, legal action to enforce EU rules is usually a long and expensive process. This, coupled with the EU’s current priority of dealing with the economic crisis, means that enforcement actions against non-compliant countries could still be a long way off.

Voluntary vs compulsory

During the preparations for the ban, some countries such as the UK were relying on retailers and manufacturers to sign up to a ‘voluntary consensus’ not to sell or use illegally produced eggs from other EU member states. However, such voluntary agreements are typically only adhered to when it is to the signatories benefit and with a number of countries failing to meet new legal standards, stricter action is now required.

At present, hopes will have to remain with individual countries taking their own action – whether through voluntary codes or their own legislation – to stop the production and trading of illegally produced eggs. It will also be up to the industry to ensure that consumers are well informed to help them make the right decision.

Feature orginally featured Agra Europe, January 2012, authored by Siân Wall,  Associate, Regulatory

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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