THE number of illegally-produced eggs from battery hens in Europe is expected to top one billion by the end of the month, officials in Brussels have confirmed.
A European Union-wide ban on battery hen systems came into effect on January 1 this year but some 14 member states are thought to be set to flout the ban, leaving an estimated 46.7 million hens still being farmed in this way.
The EU this week pledged to get tough on the issue, pledging to send investigators to the suspected nations to gather evidence to back up any potential fines or legal proceedings against them.
However the fact so many illegal eggs are on the market remains a source of great concern to Britain’s poultry farmers, who have long been adhering to far higher standards of animal welfare with the previous Government having brought in a ban on battery systems earlier.
In all UK farmers are estimated to have spent £400m in scrapping the old battery systems and bringing in new infrastructure, only to find themselves of being at risk of being undercut by cheap foreign eggs produced under battery conditions.
Katy Lee, spokeswoman for UK farming unions in Brussels, called for prompt action to stamp out non-compliance.
“In good faith the UK poultry industry has fully complied with the new laws on the welfare of laying hens and now we are told 14 member states have failed to meet the deadline. This is unacceptable,” she said.
Defra came under mounting pressure towards the end of 2011 to ban the importation of eggs from countries not adhering to the ban on battery eggs. But farming minister Jim Paice said such a move would present a minefield of legal and administrative difficulties and instead has sought to seek a voluntary agreement from UK retailers not to stock them.
This voluntary approach has won the backing of many leading food retailers, with Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Iceland and the Co-op all having confirmed in recent days they will not source any products produced by caged hens.
Elsewhere hoteliers and restaurateurs Whitbread and coffee chain Starbucks have also joined the commitment.
The move comes as the National Farmers Union announced that on Monday it will publish a list of those companies which have made the pledge on battery eggs and urged other food companies to add their names to the list ahead of publication.
Last month, however, the British Hospitality Association had warned that following discussions with Mr Paice it may be difficult for smaller businesses to determine where all of the food they use comes from, saying such requirements would “expensive and difficult”.
The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), another organisation which has taken a lead on the issue, said consumers should be on their guard to make sure they are not buying food made from illegal eggs.
Jane Howorth, BHWT founder, said: “Three billion eggs are processed in the UK every year (taken out of their shells and sold as liquid, dried or frozen egg to the food industry). One billion of these eggs are currently imported and therein lies the worry.
“It is likely that not only will consumers be unwittingly eating illegal eggs produced to lower welfare standards, but we will also be putting British egg farmers at a serious commercial disadvantage, as they struggle to compete with overseas markets that continue to flout the rules.”