Ending cages for laying hens must be a priority as we prepare to lead the way in ethical farming
All major retailers have committed to going cage free by at least 2025. It’s only right that our legislation reflects the strong public and commercial impetus for transitioning to a cage-free future.
More than a year on from the UK’s EU departure, Brexit has presented an array of opportunities for Britain to strengthen its animal welfare standards. From banning the shark fin trade to enshrining animal sentience in law, the government’s recent Action Plan for Animal Welfare signals a real shift in the way we prioritise the protection of animals in the UK.
Reforming our farming methods is one such policy area where we can have a real impact on the world stage – both in setting high standards for ourselves and encouraging other countries to follow suit. Specifically, ending cages for laying hens should be a key focus for the government as we prepare to lead the way in ethical farming.
In 2012 barren battery cages were banned throughout Europe but ‘enriched’ battery cages are still legally permitted. This means around 42 per cent of eggs produced in the UK come from hens confined within an area so small they each have only the space of an A4 piece of paper to themselves, with barely enough room to spread their wings. Shockingly, that’s around 16 million hens at present. This simply isn’t acceptable for a nation that prides itself on high animal welfare standards.
Only legislation can bring this cruel practice to an end
Indeed, acting to better our farming practices is a key concern for UK consumers, with an overwhelming 98 per cent of people stating in a recent poll that protecting the welfare of farmed animals is important to them. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of consumers want ending cages for laying hens to be a priority.
This is unsurprising given the numerous consumer benefits associated with improving the welfare of laying hens. We know that cage free hens suffer from lower rates of metabolic disorders and diseases including caged layer fatigue.
Of course, such a transition requires strong support from retailers too. The sentiment amongst businesses is almost unanimous, and many have already transitioned away from supply chains which feature caged farms.
In fact, all major retailers have now committed to going cage free by at least 2025. It’s now only right that our legislation reflects this strong public and commercial impetus for transitioning to a cage-free future.
In terms of the impact on egg producers, the majority will be unaffected by such a ban, since 58 per cent are already cage free. The 42 per cent of producers who continue to use cages will have to replace and adopt new practices, but given the appropriate support, they will be able to effectively manage this transition.
Independent economic research also tells us that the cost for alternative barn or free-range systems are comparable to the cost of enriched cages. Though of course, we must ensure that these alternative free-range systems involve meaningfully higher welfare than enriched cage systems.
I am proud to be bringing the Hens Caging (Prohibition) Bill before Parliament today which seeks to end cages for laying hens in the UK. In setting high standards for ourselves we are not only strengthening the welfare of animals at home, but also blazing a trail for other countries to follow in our footsteps.
Only legislation can bring this cruel practice to an end, and it is my hope that today marks the first step in our transition to a cage-free future.
The government must now build on its recent progress in its Action Plan, and use this opportunity to realign our farming practices with the British public’s high regard for animal welfare.
Henry Smith is the Conservative MP for Crawley and Patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.
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