Comment: Focus on science, rather than perception, before scrapping enriched cage systems

By Aimee Mahony, NFU chief poultry adviser

We are already a third of the way through the year, where does the time go? As COVID restrictions start to lift not only are we hoping that the reopening of hospitality and food service will help producers who supply these sectors, but it also offers hope that we may soon be able to start seeing each other face-to-face rather than via a computer screen.

One consistent theme we are seeing in the poultry sector this year, that I touched on last month, are campaigns focussed on bird welfare. Many of these campaigns have been around for some time but they have recently increased in activity. One of these campaigns, which is focussed not only on practices in the UK but also across the EU, is targeting the use of enriched cages in egg production.

As we know, several retailers have already pledged to go cage-free in the UK by 2025 and there is a drive from some groups for more businesses to join them. One of the frustrating elements for me is the focus on the individual production system. As I’ve said many times in this column, it’s the quality of animal husbandry and stockmanship that are the greatest factors determining animal health and welfare, not the system of production.

Like all methods of egg production in the UK, a farm using an enriched cage system maintains high standards of animal welfare. In fact, we all know that it also delivers a variety of welfare and hygiene benefits because the system is designed to provide for a hen’s needs. However, we often see many images used as part of these campaigns that do not originate from UK farms or depict systems that would be illegal here, resulting in consumers being misled.

Many readers will be familiar with making huge investments around 10 years ago when battery cages were banned in 2012 and I know that many will still be feeling the effect of that investment on their businesses. It is a tall order to require these producers to yet again invest in overhauling their farm business, particularly when existing systems deliver high bird welfare.

It’s also important to remember that just over a quarter of eggs sold by retailers last year came from enriched cages so it clearly has an important role to play for the consumer who is seeking eggs at an affordable price point.

Ultimately, the NFU believes that any changes to legislation or retail policy should be based on science and evidence, rather than perception.

 

 

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