Threats by the European Commission to take tough action against member states failing to implement new regulations banning battery cages for egg production which come into effect on 1 January, are too little and too late, NFU Scotland has warned.
The union is concerned that the UK will be flooded with illegally-produced eggs from the continent in the New Year with as many as 50 million eggs a day continuing to be produced in battery systems which are outlawed.
UK producers have invested £400 million in so-called “enriched” cages which are allowed under the new regulations and give laying birds more space as well as the freedom to nest and perch.
UK egg producers will be unable to compete on price with eggs produced in more intensive systems in conventional battery cages and little action is being taken to stop these eggs pouring into the UK.
“We are days away from Scottish producers finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage as a result of complying with standards set by Europe,” said union vice-president John Picken.
“And once again the deeply disappointing message to industry is commission deadlines, and threats of infringement proceedings, are largely ineffectual.”
The UK farmers’ unions have consistently called on the commission and the UK government to ensure illegal eggs do not enter the UK in either shell or processed form. But failure to respond in time to industry’s pleas for illegal eggs to be marked means that the only enforcement option remaining is to use ultra violet analysis to identify illegal shell eggs.
However, due to legal loopholes, illegal eggs will not be destroyed or sent back but simply downgraded and will still be eligible to be processed into egg products.
“This debacle is yet another example of good intentions being poorly executed,” said Picken. “Industry has maintained for years that the commission was not strong enough on its stance on the implementation of the deadline. Only in the dying weeks of the old regime has the commission tried to cobble together an agreement that would have minimised the impact of non-compliance.
“All the while those Scottish farmers who have complied in good faith ahead of the deadline face a competitive disadvantage, having borne the significant cost of moving to an enriched cage, barn or free range system.” Picken said it was now clear that imports could not be stopped but the union was working with retailers, food manufacturers, food service companies and processors to uphold their commitment not to buy imported eggs from banned conventional cages.
“Many large retailers have publicly committed not to sell eggs from these cages or use them in their own-brand products and we welcome that promise from them,” said Picken.
The commission last week promised legal action against 13 member states who are in breach of the new rules – Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and the Netherlands.
The union says it is vital that the commission does not repeat its mistakes in implementing the ban on pig stalls and tethers which is due to come into force at the end of next year.
SNP MEP Alyn Smith has also branded the commission’s recent actions as “too little and too late”, pointing out that countries had been given a 13-year lead-in period to comply with the regulations.
“No European measures have been put in place to legally prevent the trade in illegal eggs,” he said. “Member states have been left in an uncertain legal situation, as shown by the actions of the UK government, who will attempt to scan imports for battery produced eggs, but who do not feel able to exclude such eggs from the UK.”
Smith said it was galling to see overzealous EU auditors enforcing cross-compliance on sheep electronic identification rules, which unduly punished genuine mistakes which did not threaten the integrity of the system, while moving only sluggishly to enforce primary legislation concerning a central goal of the European Union - animal welfare.
“It sends the wrong signal to producers for all future animal welfare laws, such as the ban on farrowing cages coming in 2013, and the enforcement of animal transport legislation,” he said.