This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Monday, 9 January 2012
French farmers ignore battery hen ban
Secretly-filmed footage from poultry farms suggests many egg producers on the Continent will flout a European Union ban on battery hens which comes into force today.
They found higher death rates in the free-range and barn-reared flocks than in the battery hen flocksPhoto: GETTY
By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor, and Peter Allen in Paris
7:00AM GMT 01 Jan 2012
The graphic images, shot in the last few weeks by animal rights activists in France, show hens crammed into tiny wire cages despite new rules ordering farmers to use larger, so-called “enriched” containers which give birds space to spread their wings.
British egg producers have all switched from the controversial “barren battery cages” at a cost of £400 million, but fear that their businesses will be hit by an influx of cheaply-produced European imports from farms which have failed to comply.
In all, 23 per cent of total EU egg production is forecast to be 'illegal’ from today - equivalent to 84 million hens laying some 70 million eggs a day.
France is one of a number of European countries which admit that they are not ready for the new legislation designed to protect the welfare of laying hens.
Last week the French Association for the Free Rearing of Hens produced footage from six farms who it claimed had failed to introduce the new “humane” cages and were still using outlawed techniques.
It said its latest investigation, shared with The Sunday Telegraph, showed nothing had changed at several farms in Britanny which it had visited before and found to be in flagrant breach of animal welfare rules.
At one farm, near Languidic, the group, known as L214, found a shed filled with 4,140 cages some crammed with six or seven hens. The 19in (48cm) deep cages were designed for three birds but on average 20,700 birds were crammed five to a cage.
The group monitored the birds for more than a year noting how, after six months, many had lost their feathers and had their beaks trimmed. The group says it found dead hens had been left to rot in their cages.
The group refused to name the farm because of French privacy laws, but said it was a major supplier to a leading international egg processing plant in the region which sells to British food manufacturers and caterers.
Brigitte Gothiere, spokeswoman for the French animal rights group said: “Many of the birds were featherless and had damaged beaks. We do not think the new laws will force these farmers to abandon these cages.”
British mainstream supermarkets now only stock free range eggs or eggs from caged birds living in more humane and strictly regulated conditions.
But the market in liquid and powdered egg is less easy to police. Millions of litres of liquid egg is bottled up in France and shipped across Europe, mainly for use in the catering industry and by food manufacturers.
As well as France, eight other countries, including Italy, Poland and Portugal, have told the European Commission that their farmers will not be ready to fully implementing the new rules by today. Another four countries, including Greece and Spain, have said they are unlikely to be ready.
Because Brussels has not backed up the new law with fines, penalties or an export ban, there is nothing to stop farmers who flout it from selling their eggs in Britain.
That means British farmers, who have gone to great expense to meet the deadline to get rid of the cages, could find they are undercut and even forced out of business.
Around a quarter of all eggs end up being used in food manufacturing and processing, producing a variety of products for sale under both retailer own-label or branded products.
A recent Egg Products market report compiled a list of products considered to be most at risk of illegal egg imports from 1 January 2012.
Top of the list were Scotch eggs, which currently use 60 per cent imported eggs in the production process. It also revealed that half the eggs used to make sandwiches were imported, 30 per cent of the eggs used to produce quiches and cakes were produced abroad and 20 per cent of eggs used in Yorkshire puddings.
The British egg industry has repeatedly urged the Government to take tough action and ban imports into the UK of illegally produced eggs, egg products, and foods containing illegal eggs, from today – or risk crippling the UK egg industry.
But Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister, said the Government was relying on the UK food industry to reach a 'voluntary consensus’ that they won’t sell or use battery-farmed eggs.
He said that the Government “has thoroughly investigated the possibility of taking unilateral action and bringing in a UK ban on all imports of egg and egg products which have been produced in conventional cages in other Member States. However, given the very significant legal and financial implications of introducing such a ban, coupled with practical difficulties in enforcing it, it is not a realistic option”.
Mr Paice added: “It is unacceptable that, after the ban on battery cages comes into effect, around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions. We have all had plenty of time to make these changes, but 13 EU nations have not done so. It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law.”
Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), said: “The UK egg industry feels totally let down by the Government. Whilst we have received repeated platitudes of support, it has failed to back these up with any real action.
“We need to see a complete ban on any illegally produced eggs, egg products and foods containing illegal eggs. That way, British consumers will know exactly what they are getting.
“EU member states have had more than 12 years to get their houses in order and comply with the new legislation, so there should be no excuses. British egg producers have invested heavily to meet their legal obligations – only to see their efforts jeopardised by an apparent lack of political will.”
Newcastle-based Lowrie Foods produces approximately 40 tonnes of pasteurised liquid egg per week to supply bakery customers. All eggs that are used are laid in the UK.
Managing director Tom Lowrie is very concerned about an influx of cheaper imported liquid egg being imported. He said: “Whatever the intention of buyers they
simply will not know as there will be no transparency”.
Much of the liquid egg produced in Holland and some in Germany uses egg imported from Eastern Europe and Poland in particular. “These are countries that will have significant production in conventional cages after the January 2012 deadline. It is inevitable that the liquid egg will be derived at least in part from illegal units.”
A spokeswoman for Compassion in World Farming said: “Consumers will have to be extra vigilant. The best way to be sure you’re not eating illegal and cruelly-produced eggs is to check that the label on your pasta, cake or ready meal says that any eggs are free range or organic.”
“The ban was voted for in 1999. There should be red faces in some European countries. Given the years they’ve had to prepare for this ban, there are no excuses. We are calling on the European Commission to prosecute those countries who have failed to comply.”
“It’s essential now to make sure that the ban is properly enforced, so consumers can buy products with confidence that they don’t contain illegal eggs.”
Under the new rules farmers much use new enriched 'colony’ cages which provide the birds with more space, a darkened nest area, perching space and a scratching area. Hens will normally be in groups of 50-80 in each colony which provides a much larger area in total over which to move around compared with the old cage system.
The new cages provide more living space per hen, 750 cm2 cage area per hen compared to 550 cm2 in conventional battery cages.