By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
As we have in the past on trade related matters, we are working with the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming to hold the UK Government to account for sacrificing its animal welfare principles in pursuit of free trade agreements. I am referring of course to the decision to exclude eggs/egg products as a sensitive sector in the recently agreed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is even though countries such as Mexico (within the CPTPP block) have an egg sector much larger than that of the UK, or any EU country, but use almost exclusively barren-battery cage systems that have been illegal in the UK and the EU since 2012. Indeed, even today certain Conservative MPs and government ministers have referenced the fact that we have some of highest laying hen welfare standards in the world, particularly when exploring the idea of banning enriched cages. This is the height of double standards, as you cannot increase animal welfare standards at home, then open your door to products from production systems that are illegal here.
The BEIC responded to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and their call for evidence into the roles currently being filled largely by migrant workers, their salaries, and the implication of any changes proposed by the UK Government. This is largely a continuation of a call for evidence that MAC ran back in September 2020. Overall, the situation has not improved, and in some circumstances, things are much worse. The British egg industry has been struggling to find staff for key roles, such as catchers. The use of Technology can only achieve so much and even efforts to increase automation in the sector cannot replace roles that are essential to protect for farm animal welfare – the UK Government’s current policy approach to migrant workers is putting animal welfare at risk. On-farm roles have been a challenge to fill, but also many off-farm roles including those in packing centres, and even long-distance / heavy goods vehicle drivers.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Eggs, Pigs and Poultry, that the BEIC holds the Secretariat for, recently hosted a panel discussion in Westminster to discuss disease preparedness, safeguarding the UK’s food security. Lord Benyon, Minister of State for Biosecurity, Marine and Rural Affairs attended the panel, which I was part of. Jim Shannon MP, as Chair of the APPG, opened the event by saying “To live in a fully functioning, capable, and robust nation, food security is a completely non-negotiable attribute”, and later went to acknowledge that “Disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent, and more severe, not just in the UK but elsewhere in the world”. This has significant impact on the food supply chain, with catastrophic consequences for farmers. It isn’t confined to farm animals, these diseases spread into the wild animal population, wreaking havoc on our natural eco-systems”.
The event was well attended by members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords. I hope that the work of the APPG will demonstrate how important food security is to everyone and that the parliamentarians that attended will play their part in ensuring the UK Government acts and makes the necessary reforms to better prepare for future disease threats – particularly around AI vaccination.
In the EU, the European Commission is to amend the EU marketing legislation as early as this Autumn to remove reference to the 16-week period whereby FR eggs can maintain their status when FR poultry flocks are required to be housed to protect them against a Notifiable Avian Disease. The British egg industry’s recent experience with AI, the housing order, and the BEIC labelling solution has only served to reinforce the BEIC’s position that the UK Government and devolved governments must follow suit. To help expediate the process, Defra have confirmed that a GB-wide consultation will take place shortly along the same lines. This means that there would be no clock start and FR hens could remain housed until it was safe for them to come out again without loss of FR egg status.