Belgium – 01 Mar 12 – Anne Marie Matarrese
Europe’s animal welfare organizations welcomed the long-awaited ban on battery cages that came into force across Europe on January 1, following a 12-year phase-out period. With strong support from scientific research and public opinion, the 1999 Directive on Laying Hens bans the use of what is commonly agreed to be the most inhumane method of raising hens – the barren battery cage, in which the fowl live a short and painful life crammed into spaces so small they are unable to spread their wings, far less express their natural behavior.

The ban calls for all cages to be replaced by ‘enriched’ versions, so-called for their larger size and provision of limited nesting, perching and scratching areas. Whilst at a first glance this may be considered to be a major breakthrough, the welfare groups argue that the hens are still not guaranteed an adequate level of welfare by these new living quarters.

In their investigation into the matter, The Ecologist discovered that enriched cages in fact only grant around a postcard-sized extra space per bird – still not enough for them to fully extend their wings. “Most birds in ‘enriched’ cages will still spend a significant proportion of their time standing on sloping wire mesh floors with little room to move around”, reports The Ecologist, “and they will all still be denied fresh air and sunshine.” According to scientific research, the risk of cannibalism due to stress in enriched cages is also significantly high.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, are taking the ban on battery cages as an opportunity to leave the use of cages behind entirely, in favor of free-range or alternative systems. However, despite the grace period of more than a decade allowed for conversion to enriched cages or alternative systems of breeding, many countries are yet to implement the ban at all. According to Roberto Bennati, vice-president of Italy’s Anti-Vivisection League (LAV), around 50 million laying hens are still being raised in battery cages, 20 million of which are in Italy.

Bennati believes that consumers can play a fundamental role in ensuring a better life for laying hens: “Consumers have responded extremely well to our campaigns and have had a significant impact in changing the market and breeding systems”. Thanks to the Galline Libere (free hens) campaign, LAV managed to persuade the Italian supermarket cooperative COOP to ban the sale of eggs from battery hens in favor of those from free-range or organic farms. “It is necessary to shift towards alternative, safer systems that are more attentive to the welfare of animals and meet the expectations of consumers.”

However, Dr. Mara Miele, Senior Fellow at Cardiff University involved in the EU-funded animal welfare projectWelfare Quality believes that some big challenges lie ahead. “In some European countries, the abolition of battery cages will not be seen as a priority… Animal welfare is an issue which does not easily attract the attention of legislators,” said Miele. Furthermore, she points out how implementing higher welfare standards in Europe may be seen to be detrimental to trade: “In countries such as China and Africa, cages are being introduced as an element of modernization and to lower costs. On a global level it will be increasingly difficult to introduce welfare measures in Europe due to the competition from lower costs of eggs produced in countries that still use battery cages.”

The leading European animal welfare organization Eurogroup for Animals, remains optimistic, commenting that: “The battery cage ban illustrates how we, as consumers and citizens can drive change, and proves that production systems which cause animal suffering are not acceptable to us as a society and have no place in today’s EU food production.”

What is certain is that despite the successful ban on battery cages, activists have a long road ahead of them in the fight to ensure all chickens raised in Europe can live in humane conditions. In addition to ensuring the rule is actually put into practice across the EU, one of their key remaining concerns is that the labeling of eggs as from ‘enriched cages’ will mislead consumers into buying a product that sounds promising but does not respect animal welfare. To this end, increasing consumer awareness will be crucial, encouraging them to read labels carefully and to visit farmers’ markets where they can meet producers and find out exactly where their eggs are coming from.

Slow Food met with animal welfare associations from around the world this week at events in Brussels to discuss how to further the welfare of animals in farming:

‘Empowering consumers and creating market opportunities for animal welfare’, organized by the EU Danish Presidency. Click here for the agenda and live streams.

‘1st Global Multi-stakeholder Forum on Animal Welfare’, organized by FAO. Click here for the forum agenda.