Sub-standard eggs will flood into the EU as a result of the European Union’s ban on conventional cages. That is one of the conclusions of a new study on the impact of the cage ban. The report was presented to representatives of the egg industry at the International Egg Commission conference in Vancouver in September.The study was commissioned jointly by the IEC and the American United Egg Producers’ Association. It was carried out by Professor Hans-Wilhelm Windhorst, who is a specialist in intensive agriculture at the University of Vechta in Germany. He is also a statistical analyst with the International Egg Commission.He is very clear in his view of what impact the cage ban will have on the egg industry. "Eggs from production systems that do not meet EU standards will flood into the market to fill the gap; eggs that may not have the quality and safety of eggs produced in the EU," he says in his report.The EU ban on conventional cages will come into force on January 1 2012, although it is now clear that producers who want to complete a full flock cycle will have to be out of conventional cages much earlier. The United Kingdom’s Minister for Food, Farming and Environment, Jim Fitzpatrick, says all laying hens will have to be out of conventional cages by January 1 2012. Any producer who wishes to complete a full 13 month laying cycle will be unable to house a flock in a conventional cage system after December 2010.Germany decided to introduce the conventional cage ban earlier than other countries – introducing it this year rather than waiting for 2012. Prof Windhorst says that between 1999 when the EU Commission passed the directive and 2008 the number of laying hens in Germany fell by 17.6 per cent from 50.1 million birds to 41.3 million birds."It is obvious that legislators in the EU as well as at the country level in Germany did not fully consider what impacts the banning of conventional cages would have on the future development of egg production and the resulting egg deficit," he says in his report. "From 2012 on, perhaps even earlier because of the critical situation in Germany, the EU will be an egg deficit region. Egg imports from countries with much lower animal welfare standards will be necessary. Nothing will be gained for the welfare of laying hens in these countries. In addition, the quality and safety of the imported eggs may be lower than those produced in the EU."Egg production across the EU fell by 2.5 per cent between 2002 and 2007. Along with Germany, the other big loser was the United Kindom. The number of eggs produced in the UK fell from 741,000t in 2002 to 620,000t in 2007 – a drop of 16.3 per cent. Prof Windhorst says the reason for the fall was a decision by leading retailers to stop listing cage eggs. A large number of egg farmers decided to give up egg production completely, he said. Self-sufficiency levels in both the UK and Germany have fallen.In the UK, the country was 83 per cent self-sufficient in 2007 compared to 90 percent self-sufficient in 2002. In Germany, the self-sufficiency rate fell from 74 per cent to 67 per cent over the same period of time. Prof Windhorst says the situation in Germany has become particularly critical as a result of its early adoption of the conventional cage ban. He says the Green Party has enjoyed some political success in Germany and the egg industry’s position has become more serious because welfare groups have been able to pressurise retailers into boycotting enriched cages as well as conventional cages. Most leading retailers have decided not to list eggs produced in the German equivalent of conventional cages – the kleingruppenhaltungen. "Even though it is agreed upon by leading scientists working in the field of poultry production and ethology that this form meets most of the demands of laying hens and in addition guarantees a high quality of eggs as well as the best protection against the introduction of highly infectious diseases, animal welfare groups and some political parties continue their fight with the argument ’ a cage is a cage’," says Prof Windhorst.As a result of this there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of egg farms and laying hens. The number of layers is expected to fall by a further seven million by the end of 2009. "This will result in a growing egg deficit. In addition to the import of about 5.7 billion eggs in 2008, another two billion will have to be imported to meet the domestic demand."Prof Windhorst has attempted to assess the cost to the industry of switching away from conventional cages. In Germany it is estimated that of the 26.4 million layers in conventional cages some eight million will be transferred to kleingruppenhaltungen and 18 million to floor management and free range. For the kleingruppenhaltungen, the cost of the switch is put at 180 million euros. The cost of the switch to floor management and free range is estimated to be 432 million euros, giving a total cost of switching away from conventional cages in Germany of 612 million euros. "Regarding the present financial and economic situation, it seems to be very unrealistic to assume that these investments can be realised by the end of 2009," says Prof Windhorst.For the whole of the EU, he estimates that the cost of switching away from conventional cages will be 6.1 billion euros. "One does not need to be a prophet to state that the necessary capital for these investments will not be available under the critical financial and economic situation. How the EU will react when the member countries do not fulfil directive 1999/74/EC is still an open question."