Outspoken MEP Stuart Agnew has described the European Union’s handling of the forthcoming ban on conventional cages as a "shambles."A UKIP representative in the European Parliament for East of England, Stuart Agnew is also a free range egg producer who has 35,000 layers on his farm near Fakenham. He told those attending the annual conference of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association that it had been clear for some time that preparations for the introduction of the ban in 2012 were going wrong, but the EU had been slow to act."I became aware earlier this year that things were going very wrong and that we were not going to get there. I started to say to the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, ’Come on, we should be debating this, we have got a problem.’ I kept on bringing it up under any other business, writing to the co-ordinators, but it took four months for them even to get it onto the agenda."The British Egg Industry Council estimates that about 30 per cent of the EU’s egg production will fail to meet the deadline for the conventional cage ban in January 2012. Producers in the UK and in other northern European states like Germany and Holland, as well as Ireland, have made the investment necessary to ensure they comply with the new regulations, but France, Spain and Italy have conceded they will fail to meet the deadline. These three countries account for 39 per cent of EU egg production. EU inspectors have also indicated that Poland is unlikely to be ready in time.Stuart Agnew said that EU states had had 12 years to make the conversion to enriched colonies, and that should have provided plenty of time for them to do so. However, a number of countries had waited until the last minute. Some producers had feared they might invest lots of money in enriched systems only for the EU to then move the goal posts and demand something else. Some were worried that if they made the switch too early and others did not do so they would find themselves at a commercial disadvantage. Others had hung back thinking that the EU might provide them with a grant towards conversion."It’s going to be a shambles in 13 months time isn’t it. It’s going to be a complete shambles, but what we do not want is your taxpayers’ money, particularly a colony producer in this country making a profit, paying tax to subsidise these people to put up colonies. That, for me, is just the end of the road and we will fight to prevent it."He said the European Commission had made the rule and it should be enforcing it. At the very least it should be starving Spain and Italy of regional funds. "But I understand that they are not going to do anything at all. That’s what we hear. There is going to be a meeting of stakeholders in January - surprise, surprise, when all the MEPs are in Strasbourg they are going to be meeting in Brussels."Stuart Agnew said that one temporary solution could involve stamping the number four on eggs that did not comply with the new rules – something that the UK egg industry has been pressing for if states who fail to meet the 2012 deadline are given more time to comply. "Compassion in World Farming have been lobbying me and saying you should not put anything on them, but I say that a naked egg is a gift to a fraudster."UK industry has also been pressing for an intra-state ban on the movement of illegal cage eggs, but Stewart Agnew said he thought that would be very difficult to police. "If you have driven around Europe on holiday you will have noticed that there are no checks, there are no stops anywhere. You just go from one place to another."
He said he was concerned about the trade negotiations that the EU had entered into with Mercosur – the organisation representing Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. "The EU want to send their hi-tech products over there, and in return they want to open our markets for agricultural produce. It’s going to be bad. The question is how bad. What worries me is that we’ll say we want to see things produced under our standards, a delegation of MEPs and other people will go across, be put up in a hotel, wined and dined, be shown some perfect modern unit nearby with wonderful views over the South Atlantic and everyone will grin and say how wonderful it all is. They will all go back saying it’s fine, but meanwhile the real workers will be 500 miles inland with dirty cage units and all the rest of it. That is the big worry for me."Stewart Agnew was asked by one conference delegate what he thought would happen to the conventional cage eggs come 2012. He said, "Things will just muddle on and we will keep grumbling and grumbling, our producers will be limping along at a disadvantage and eventually it will sort itself out years after the Commission hoped. But I feel very strongly that we should not put a penny of regional funding into these countries while they have got battery cage units."Stewart Agnew made clear his belief that the monitoring of preparations for the conversion to enriched colonies had been ineffective and that penalties for failing to meet EU requirements were inadequate. "The EU has been saying to member states, ’How are you getting on? And they have just been given some flannel. The member states may say to their own producers, ’Come on you should be changing over at 10 per cent a year, we are going to fine you,’ so there is a fine of 5,000 Euros on a unit of a million birds. It’s just a licence to keep them in cages if that’s all it costs. Great. Far better that than to actually build the colonies."
And whilst producers in some states had been dragging their heels, those in the UK and other states had been investing in colonies at a cost of about £25 per bird.