14-10-2013 20:49 PM | News, Poultry

Cage ban made little difference to the lives of laying hens - Soil Association

Cage ban made little difference to the lives of laying hens - Soil Association
The European Union's ban on the use of battery cages has made little difference to the lives of many laying hens, according to the Soil Association.

The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive, which came into force on January 1 2012, outlawed the use of conventional cages in the European union and required that egg producers in member states use only enriched cages, barn or free range systems. Two countries - Italy and Greece - have been referred to the European Court for failing to comply with the directive, but the Soil Association says that, even in states where the rules have been enforced, the legislation has made little difference to many hens.

In a draft action plan for poultry, the Soil Association says that intensive systems account for three quarters of all poultry production in the United Kingdom. On egg production specifically, the association says, "The European ban on so called 'conventional' battery cages that has been introduced will not mean that egg laying chickens are free range or kept in cage free barns; rather they will be in small groups in larger cages seeing only a minor improvement in their welfare." And it says that, outside the EU, conventional battery cages will continue to be used. "Although largely beyond our influence, we also recognise that the majority of egg laying chickens around the world will continue to be produced in the small battery cages that are now being phased out in Europe."

The Soil Association's action plan for poultry is an attempt to set out the association's aspirations for "humane and sustainable poultry production." It has been consulting with producers, processors, retailers, caterers, NGOs (non Government organisations) and others before producing its final plan, but the association has set out its thoughts on the way ahead in a draft document.

In that document, it says, "The way the vast majority of poultry are farmed in the UK today differs firmly from the organic principles that food should be produced ecologically, healthily, fairly and with care. Laying hens and broilers, enclosed in sheds of tens or hundreds of thousands, are fed on grain and soya shipped from around the world. Birds are routinely dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks in their cramped environment, contributing to the risk of antibiotic resistant illnesses in humans. Most birds are kept in conditions that prevent them from expressing natural behaviours that are important to their welfare, with their lives further removed from those of their wild ancestors than any other farmed species. The enormous economies of scale that the industry has achieved through concentration and vertical integration lock farmers in and leave them little scope to do things differently."

The Soil Association says that its action plan is intended to "bring the whole poultry sector closer to organic principles."

The association says that the production and consumption of both poultry meat and eggs has been transformed over the last 70 years. "While poultry products have become dramatically more affordable and available, this has come at a cost to society, the environment and animal welfare," it says in the draft action plan. "It has relied on feedstuffs from intensive arable farms with low biodiversity, destroying forests and diverting land from producing food crops for humans." It says, "The amount of feed required to produce each egg or kilo of meat has been reduced by keeping birds packed closely together (so they use less energy keeping warm and moving around), shortening their lives and breeding to increase their feed conversion rates. The birds are not free to express all their natural behaviours. The use of veterinary medicines, including antibiotics, is widespread in order to try to contain disease outbreaks in crowded conditions and large flocks."

The Soil Association says it wants to see the improvement of animal welfare across the whole industry. One of its priorities, it says, is to promote the adoption of free range production as a minimum for both eggs and poultry meat. "The past decade has seen incremental improvements in some aspects of the welfare of poultry in the UK, for example through the increase of free range systems as a proportion of egg production," it says in the draft document. "The welfare of poultry in all systems, for meat and eggs, must be much further improved. For example, birds should not suffer the discomfort of leg weakness that can be associated with systems in which birds are kept inside, close together in very large numbers or, in the case of egg production, in close confinement."

The Soil Association concedes in the action plan that the growth of organic eggs and poultry has been hampered by cost. "It currently costs up to three times more to produce eggs organically compared with the cheapest factory farmed alternative, and up to eight times more to produce meat," it says. "This is because the birds live longer, move more and so need more feed, the feed costs more to grow, more labour is needed and the capital costs per bird are greater because more space is given to each bird."

It says that its own poultry standards can be more challenging and costly to achieve than those set out in the European Union's organic regulations. It says that the association needs to work to improve the European Union regulations at the same time as making its own standards more accessible to producers.

The Soil Association says in the document that in order to move towards more sustainable and higher welfare poultry production it will be necessary to "place a higher value on poultry products." It says, "Poultry meat has become a low cost fast food and eggs are a cheap ingredient in many processed food products. Egg prices in the supermarket range from around 10p to 39p per egg, whilst a whole chicken can cost as little as £2 or as much as £15. We believe that poultry products should be valued as a source of high quality protein."

One issue on which the draft action plan states a strong position is the Soil Association's opposition to the use of beak trimming. The British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA) and other representative organisations in the egg industry have been pressing the Government to delay the introduction of a complete ban on beak trimming, but in an annex to its draft action plan for poultry the Soil Association clearly says that beak trimming should not be used.

The annex, entitled 'Priorities for improvements in organic poultry production on farm', says that other methods should be used to control feather pecking, including breed selection, rearing systems that match in-lay systems, maximising the use of outdoor range and environmental enrichment and foraging opportunities. It also offers guidance on bird nutrition as a management tool - saying that producers should avoid changing feeds too often and that they should use mash rather than pellets.


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