Conventional laying cages may have been officially outlawed under European Union regulations, but the RSPCA is now targeting the enriched colonies that have replaced them. The association says it is working towards the eradication of all cage systems.
The RSPCA restated its opposition to all forms of laying cages in a statement that coincided with the introduction of the Welfare of Laying Hens directive ’ the European Union legislation banning the use of conventional battery cages, which came into force on January 1 this year.
’Hens will still be kept in cruel cages,’ said RSPCA chief scientific officer Alice Clark in the statement. She told the Ranger that the RSPCA’s position had not changed. The association had always been against the use of all cages, and the RSPCA felt that the introduction of the new EU rules was an appropriate time to highlight the fact that hens would still be housed in cages despite the new regulations. She said that the ban on conventional cages was an improvement ’ a landmark piece of legislation - but the RSPCA wanted to see all hens housed in cage-free systems.
The RSPCA conducted a poll to coincide with the introduction of the Welfare of Laying Hens directive. Nearly a fifth of people questioned during the poll believed that all battery cages would be banned as a result of the legislation. The RSPCA said that 88 per cent of people in England and Wales who took part in the poll had not heard about the new welfare legislation and almost seven out of ten people wrongly assumed what the new legislation would mean for hen welfare when they were given a list of options, or simply did not know.
A total of 18 per cent of those questioned assumed that all battery cages would be banned and a further eight per cent assumed all hens would have to be free range. Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) wrongly assumed that all hens would have to spend at least four hours a day outside the cage. One per cent of people wrongly assumed that the new law meant farmers would have to provide at least four hours of music for their hens each day.
’Some of the wrong answers, such as farmers having to play their hens music, would be funny if it wasn’t such a serious issue,’ said Alice. ’The reality is that a sizeable chunk of the public mistakenly think that hens will no longer be kept in cages and, sadly, that is not the case. The message we want to drive home is that, despite new welfare law, hens will still be kept in cruel cages. If you don’t agree with that make it your new year’s resolution to only buy cage-free eggs.’
Alice said that with free range now accounting for 50 per cent of the shell egg market, eggs used in food manufacturing would become a focus for attention. More than half the eggs eaten by the public were in food such as cakes, quiches, pastries and sauces, which did not legally have to be labeled cage, barn or free range. Nearly seven out of ten people questioned by the RSPCA in the poll thought that food containing eggs should be required by law to be labeled with the system they came from. Alice said that some major food brands, like Hellmans and Mr Kipling, had switched to using cage-free eggs. Some major retailers were also switching to cage-free in their own brand products. Others needed to be persuaded to do the same.
The RSPCA said that an estimated 15 million hens would be kept in cages in the UK this year despite the conventional cage ban. There would be a total of about 222 million hens across Europe in cages. It said that enriched cages gave the hens slightly more room, perches, scratching and nesting area, but the hens still had less usable space per bird than an A4 sheet of paper and were not able to properly express some natural behaviours like dust bathing and foraging. It said it felt that no hen should be kept in a cage. The RSPCA said that 61 per cent of the public surveyed in the poll agreed, saying they would like to see enriched battery cages banned too.
Alice Clark said, ’Although there seems to be public confusion about the new legislation it’s great to see that a majority of people care about the hens which lay their eggs and support the work of the RSPCA to improve welfare standards. This legislation is certainly a step in the right direction but the RSPCA has been campaigning to get rid of battery cages for 30 years and will not stop until this happens.’
Whilst the RSPCA is looking to the eventual eradication of enriched cages, many hens in the EU continue to be housed in conventional cages despite the introduction of the ban. The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has estimated that as much as a third of the EU’s laying flock will have been in the banned cages when the new regulations came into force on January 1. Alice Clark said it was ’outrageous’ that some egg producers had failed to make even the changes required by the Welfare of Laying Hens directive.
Despite the investment made by the UK egg industry to meet the requirements of the directive, the RSPCA will continue to press for the removal of all cages, including enriched colonies. Alice Clarke concedes that we are unlikely to see new legislation at the moment, so closely after the introduction of the conventional cage ban, but she said that the RSPCA would work to persuade consumers, retailers and food manufacturers to use cage-free eggs.