Seeking unilaterally to pre-empt the Review of EU Council Directive 99/74/EC due in 2005, DEFRA is seeking views from all interested parties on a possible ban on the use of enriched cages for laying hens in England (but not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland to whom such powers have been devolved!) The effect of such a ban, taken together with the existing measures in the Directive, would have the effect of abolishing cages altogether by 2012, English egg production remaining only in barn/perchery and free range systems.
Although housing systems must undoubtedly continue to be improved to satisfy welfare demands, there will be great concern that banning all cages in England will simply shift the perceived welfare problem to non-regulated countries. This, in turn, will be likely further to compromise the birds welfare. Unless enforceable trade agreements were reached at EU and WTO levels, historically highly unlikely, it would also have an extremely damaging economic effect on poultry farmers and associated UK industries through unfair competition. Current evidence suggests that the majority of consumers still buy on price, irrespective of production system or country of origin.
The balance of scientific evidence does not currently support the view that alternative housing systems, such as barn and free range, offer significantly greater welfare benefits than enriched cages. Improvements may be needed, and relevant research on various aspects of enriched cages as well as alternative systems is ongoing throughout the EU, indeed some of it is DEFRA funded. Enriched cages are widely seen as a potentially acceptable compromise between conventional cages and extensive systems. While current prototypes are not perfect, they do largely meet the Five Freedoms. Calls for their inclusion in a ban on cages are at best premature and at worst dangerous.
Emotion must not be placed ahead of good science. Perhaps we need to remind Ministers that the target of the European Parliament is to be the foremost knowledge-based economy in the World. Research will, given the chance, ultimately produce the knowledge on which informed decisions can safely be made.