The Welfare of Laying Hens Directive - Implications for the egg industry - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 64-87)

Q64 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Mr Bowles and Ms Clark, would you like to introduce yourselves for the record, please?

David Bowles: Thank you very much. My name is David Bowles. I am the director of communications at the RSPCA, and on my left is Alice Clark, a senior scientific officer at the RSPCA in the farm animals scientific department. She is our laying hen expert.

Q65 Chair: You are both very welcome. If I may ask a general question at the beginning, successive Governments have taken a number of animal welfare measures in a variety of sectors and, perversely, the consumer goes out and purchases on price. How do you feel that we are progressing animal welfare in this country when we are damaging our own producers and just boosting imports?

David Bowles: The laying hen and egg issue is a good example of where that is not happening. If you look at where we started off in 1999, 25% of the market was free range eggs. Here we are in 2011, when that has increased by 2% to 3% each year, and we are now at, as BEIC has said, probably 45% to 50% of the market. That has happened because consumers are not choosing on price—because there is still a price differential between battery, barn and free range eggs—but on welfare grounds. The egg is the clearest example where you have seen the shortening of the tie between what consumers say in an opinion poll and what they actually do when they get into the supermarket.

Q66 Chair: Do you believe that will still be the case if the EU directive comes into force and 29% of EU eggs are not compliant?

David Bowles: What the RSPCA has been extremely consistent about all the way along from 1999, when the ban was agreed, is that we have said to consumers that they need to play their part in this. They can play their part by choosing free range or barn eggs, and certainly by buying Lion eggs. We still say that. That is really important. The people who will determine whether this ban comes into effect—we have already heard from the previous witnesses that there are clear challenges with enforcement and change-over—and can play their part in ensuring that that is as smooth as possible are the retailers, the processors and consumers.

Q67 Chair: In your memorandum you say that England—I am sure you mean the UK—has several advantages in ensuring that no illegal dried and liquid eggs enter the market. Are you equally confident that such imports are not passing around the rest of Europe?

David Bowles: No, but there are eggs coming in particularly for the egg processing market. That is a problem. In terms of shell eggs I think we have a situation now in the UK where we will be fairly compliant with shell eggs being legal and in accordance with the directive come 1 January 2012. The issue and the challenge will be in the processed and the egg products markets. We have all accepted that; indeed, the RSPCA was clear that that would be the challenge way back in 1999. It is still a challenge. If you look at the Commission's latest data, there are egg products coming from the USA, Argentina and India. All of those places are using cages. The USA is probably 95% cages; India is probably 90%. Therefore, there are real challenges, because they could undercut European producers. The key area, therefore, to focus on is the consumer but, as we know, when you are looking at egg products transparency is much more difficult because you cannot label them, but in addition the key people are the processors who buy these products.

Q68 Thomas Docherty: What activities are either you or your sister organisations—I am thinking particularly of, say, Spain—undertaking to encourage or ensure the compliance of these other countries with the directive?

David Bowles: We work through the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare, which has representatives in each of the 27 EU Member States. I have to say that the strength of the organisation varies between those states—from the UK where the RSPCA is a £110 million organisation, down to Greece where you have a couple of people and a typewriter, so it is a very different situation in those countries. But from day one when the directive was passed we clearly said to each of those organisations that they needed to go out and lobby their retailers and make clear to consumers that a changeover was to happen and they should be shifting in terms of their consumer-buying patterns. What has happened in the 12-year period from 1999 to now is that you start to see that change take place. In Italy, even in Spain, and in Greece you see companies changing over to being cage free, not just with retailers. For instance, the Netherlands went cage free in retailers long before the UK. The UK still has not gone cage free with all retailers. So a number of countries have gone further than the UK.

Q69 Thomas Docherty: Does the directive meet your concerns about cage production?

Alice Clark: We can say that it is definitely a step forward. We would hate to see that not being enforced across Europe, and that all the efforts the UK industry has put into it are undermined. It is not to the extent that we would like to see it, but I reiterate that it is certainly a step forward.

Q70 Thomas Docherty: Is there a form of cage production that you would support?

Alice Clark: Any kind of production that we would support would have to meet the full needs of the birds. As it stands, there is no evidence that a cage system can meet the full behavioural and physical needs of the birds. One thing highlighted in a Commission report a couple of years ago was that the enriched cage still did not allow for the full repertoire of the birds. Particularly when you are looking at foraging and dust bathing, those kinds of behaviours cannot be fully carried out in a cage situation.

Q71 Thomas Docherty: Given the cost to the producer of moving to completely free range, and also the cost to the consumer that I imagine is passed on, how feasible is it that we can move to an EU-wide completely free range system any time soon?

Alice Clark: Free range might be difficult, but you have to remember that there are higher welfare systems in terms of keeping them indoors in barns where they do not have outside access but still have the facilities inside, as they would have in a free range house, which allows them access to litter so they can dust bathe, forage and perch. They have free movements around the shed to exercise and move away from each other. That should certainly be a consideration in terms of farmers deciding to which system to change. Economic work that we did in 2006 looked at the costs to producers who had conventional barren cages and had to make the decision of which system to go to. The costs are quite comparable when you look at changing to an enriched cage system and some versions of the barn system.

Q72 George Eustice: I just want to press you on the point about how big a step forward this is. To come back to a question I asked earlier, how much better does a chicken feel being in an A4 plus 50% space, compared with the current system?

Alice Clark: It is fabulous to have that kind of Europe-wide recognition that the barren cage is not good enough, and there are inherent problems with the cage. You are just not in a situation where you will meet those needs at all. What we have now is a cage that is a little better. It gives a little more space; it tries to provide for those different behaviours like the addition of perching, but it is still not a situation where you can compare it with the alternative systems.

Q73 George Eustice: What do you say about the new colony system where birds can fly around and move more freely?

Alice Clark: As I have seen with the enriched cages, they still meet the requirements as set out in the directive, but from experience I think they have started to use them for larger groups of birds. They are still to the letter of the directive, as I understand it, but typically they will use 60 to 80 birds as Mark Williams said.

David Bowles: The directive is important for two things. Alice has covered welfare. Do not forget that the directive was implemented on the back of scientific reports from the Scientific Veterinary Committee, and there was a further report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2004, so the science is very clear. But from a totemic animal welfare point of view this is really the first time that we are moving from what can be termed an intensive production system to a less intensive one. As a totemic issue it is reversing what has happened in European farming over the last 40 years, so from that perspective it is very important not just for laying hens but farming in general.

Q74 Richard Drax: The Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol, Professor C. Nicol, said that good management may be more important for welfare than systems. That is her view. Do you think UK producers are sufficiently aware of and have knowledge of the impact of welfare systems on chickens?

Alice Clark: The impact in terms of management?

Q75 Richard Drax: Are they aware of the impact of management systems on the chickens?

Alice Clark: Management is absolutely critical. A free range unit will not necessarily be a good one if it is not managed well. The change in the legislation is based on the fact that some production systems inherently will not be good for the birds. Within the Freedom Food schemes run by the RSPCA, the standards we have developed go above and beyond the basic minimum in the legislation and cover management in detail, so it is something we would recommend all farmers start thinking about more. Certainly, in all sectors of agricultural livestock veterinary health planning is becoming more widely used within the farming industry, looking at management and training, as Mark talked about before.

Q76 Amber Rudd: Mr Bowles, you talked earlier about your conviction that consumers take account of animal welfare when buying eggs. To what extent do you think that might continue to be effective in terms of consumers buying egg products?

David Bowles: In that respect you have a major problem with egg products, in that it is much more difficult to be transparent about the information. It is very difficult to label ice cream or, even further away from that, to label what goes into wine, for instance, which is sometimes made from egg products. You have to get across that transparency boundary and that is where retailers, processors or producers, particularly in the food industry sector, are so important. For instance, when Hellmann's Mayonnaise made the decision a couple of years ago to move to 100% free range eggs that was a really important decision because they made the choice for the consumers. When you go into your supermarket and buy Hellmann's Mayonnaise, I imagine most people do not know they are buying free range eggs; they are buying Hellmann's Mayonnaise as a brand, but the decision has been taken for them by the company, Unilever in this respect. When Unilever went over to free range in all their Western European products it was a really important decision because it pulled through a lot of producers.

Q77 Amber Rudd: That is very interesting. How do we convince customers that there is recognisable value in food produced to higher welfare standards not only in the UK but throughout the EU? Obviously, some recognise that but what else can we do to increase that reach?

David Bowles: I think we have been very successful with eggs in particular. Eggs are the easiest thing. I think the reason we have been so successful in convincing consumers to go for free range or systems other than cage is that a cage is very emotive; it is a very simple thing for them to understand. If you are talking about chickens or pigs, it is very difficult to get across the method of production very simply. With the egg industry we have had a very clear advantage, in that the terms are very easy to convey. I think that is why there has been a 2% to 3% increase year on year in the UK, and also changes happening in other countries.

Q78 Dan Rogerson: We have talked a bit about the potential competitive disadvantage if what is predicted actually happens next year. Obviously, the EU Commission are looking at how they can deal with that. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that UK producers are not at a competitive disadvantage?

David Bowles: The RSPCA point of view is that, first, the directive needs to be implemented entirely on 1 January; secondly, that UK producers who, as Mark Williams said in his evidence, have made the effort to change over should be protected from being undercut by producers in other countries that are acting illegally. The Commission have a choice: either they go down the route of compliance, which is taking a country to the European Court of Justice and then fining it—we all know that that takes a bit of time and the fine may not be commensurate with the damage they have done—or there is a national ban to stop the eggs coming into the UK. The RSPCA is sympathetic to the fact that you may need to have national bans, because I do not think we will see compliance in Spain and Poland with the directive by 1 January. My main concern is to ensure that producers in the UK who have changed over and are farming with a higher welfare system are not undercut by a producer in another country that is acting illegally and farming with a lower welfare system.

Q79 Dan Rogerson: Talking about non-EU countries, which is an issue we have raised, do you think that kind of approach should also be taken in terms of banning things produced to a lower standard? That is a pretty big step in terms of how trade issues are usually dealt with. What is your view on that?

David Bowles: Here we are getting into World Trade Organisation territory. As the Committee is probably aware, we are in the process of having the first ever animal welfare challenge at the WTO. Canada has taken the European Union to the WTO on its seal import ban. That will be a really important challenge, because for the first time the WTO will have to make a decision as to how animal welfare sits with its rules. Let us say the WTO does not allow trade bans on animal welfare grounds. Therefore, the responsibility for ensuring that we do not import eggs that are produced at lower standards than those produced in the EU—for example, barren battery cage eggs—lies firmly with the people who are importing those, so that is retailers. As far as I am aware, every retailer to whom I have spoken and every member of EuroGAP imports at standards that are at the European baseline, so they are not importing below that standard. But we then get into the products side of it. There may well be processors post-2012 who are importing using barren battery cages. That is a real problem. They need to be convinced that they should have their own Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) standards that are at EU baseline standards.

Q80 George Eustice: To press you on that, do you think it is good enough just to rely on the retailers in that situation to enforce a ban? Should we not just knock heads together and sort out the WTO in this regard?

David Bowles: The European Commission could be bold and stop imports. They could also ensure that we do not lower our tariffs. We have the ongoing Doha development round, which ironically has been going for as long as the battery hen ban in 1999. Unfortunately, we are even further from getting a resolution on that. But we do not want them to reduce the tariffs to give the incentive for egg products to come into the EU. I think everyone has a role to play: the NGOs, to make sure consumers are aware and ask for products that are not produced illegally in the EU; the retailers; and processors. Everybody has a responsibility. We have talked to the Commission before about introducing a ban on imports that are not produced to EU standards. I would have to say they are lukewarm about it at the moment.

Q81 George Eustice: But it is a bit upside down, is it not, to be able to ban imports from a European Union country—it is supposed to be a free trade area—but not imports from a country outside the EU that has an even worse system?

David Bowles: Yes, but do not forget that the EU has banned imports internally in the market anyway but only for animal health reasons. For instance, the UK was itself subject to a ban when the BSE issue arose. That has now happily been rescinded. We have never had an internal ban on animal welfare grounds, although it is allowed under the Treaty of Rome. The language of the Treaty of Rome is very similar to that of the WTO. So if the Commission decides that it wants to do an internal ban on animal welfare grounds, maybe a good question to put is: if it is good enough for an internal ban, why is it not good enough for an external one?

Q82 Neil Parish: The recent financial crisis and credit restrictions have made borrowing for reinvestment difficult. This has been further compounded by poor returns for egg producers and record feed prices. In your memorandum you say that English producers have not been eligible for Government support but this has not had a crucial effect on their competitiveness. What is the basis for your assertion on that?

David Bowles: There are two things. First, as far as we are aware there are only three countries that have given assistance to egg producers, one being Scotland. Secondly, if you look at the changeover of production standards in England, even after the Scottish Government gave assistance to farmers there has not been a slow-down in changing over. That changeover is still happening. I assume from that that English producers are still competitive, and because the number and amount of grants was quite small I do not think it really affected competitiveness that much, though it must be galling for English producers to see their Scottish counterparts getting money when they have not.

Neil Parish: One thing we must remember is that the egg and pig industries do not get a single farm payment or money from the CAP, so they have to remain extremely competitive. I think we agree on all sides that we have to make sure that imports do not come in from countries that apply lower standards. That is what we have to work together on, isn't it?

Q83 Thomas Docherty: I apologise if you are not the right group to ask, and perhaps I should have asked this question earlier. What is the relationship with the Crown dependencies and British overseas territories on these rules? I am not aware of how many eggs we import from the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, or the other way, but where would they sit? Obviously, they are outside the EU although they have a special trade relationship with the European Union, so how would they be affected on 1 January?

David Bowles: The simple answer is that as far as I am aware no Crown dependency has a huge egg-producing sector. I am thinking of places like Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.

Q84 Thomas Docherty: I was thinking in terms of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

David Bowles: There is no big industry there.

Neil Parish: I think they should have to meet the same standards if they come into the European market, shouldn't they? I think that is how it stands, but whether they do is another matter.

Q85 Chair: I want to follow up the point about competitiveness. In paragraph 6 of your memorandum you say that "Defra has not taken up any of the seven measures to improve animal welfare available to it under the ERDP," the English Rural Development Programme. Of course, if they did use that money it would not be available for other matters on which it is currently being spent; it would be diverted, would it not?

David Bowles: That is precisely correct, and that is why they did not use it.

Q86 George Eustice: On that point, it is pretty clear that you would like to see an acceleration to a free range/barn system everywhere. Do you think there is a danger, given that DEFRA is digging in its heels and refusing to help support farmers to make the change, that once they have made that investment in the new cages and the new system, it moves your ultimate goal of a barn system further away than ever because people have done that bit? They have ticked the box and say they have improved welfare, but now they have made that investment it is harder to say they should get rid of it altogether and go to a barn system.

Alice Clark: I think we could continue to see demand for eggs from alternative systems. Something like that is so hard to predict, but I think there is a massive demand for it from consumers. Retailers are making big changes. They are not just changes that have been made; there are promises and pledges to make changes in future on the processing side, as well as the shell eggs and the retail side.

Q87 George Eustice: Leaving aside the market-led side, which I completely understand—hopefully, it will grow—in terms of the very minimum standard set down in regulation, by opting for a slightly bigger cage-plus system, an enriched cage system, and getting everyone to make the investment in that, have you made it harder to introduce legislation at a future date that says we are not having cages at all?

Alice Clark: I think that when any legislation comes in you have to bear in mind the investment people have made and have a phase-out time. This legislation has shown that you have to do that. It is certainly a consideration but this is the position we are in, so I think that for now you have to base it on that.

David Bowles: The history of European animal welfare legislation is that usually, you ratchet up the standards. For instance, the first legislation on animal welfare on eggs was in 1986. Then we had the 1999 change. The same goes for pigs and calves. But having got to where we are, we are happy with the directive. Of course we did not get everything we wanted, but we are happy with the directive as it is. We will not go back to the Commission next year or the year after and ask them to change the legislation. We are happy with what we have got, and we think consumer power will change those sectors certainly within the UK but possibly in other countries as well.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed for being so generous with your time this afternoon and for your contribution to our inquiry.

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