Best practice in animal welfare

Marks & Spencer: Non caged hens

by Barbara Baker

In July 2001 Marks & Spencer announced it would be the first food retailer to completely eliminate battery eggs from its food range. M & S now sells only free-range (plus organic) whole eggs, but has also switched to using only free-range eggs in all other foods sold - ready meals and all processed foods such as cakes etc.

This initiative, recently highlighted in Compassion In World Farming (CIWF)'s report 'Raising The Standard' on supermarkets and farm animal welfare, compiled by Philip Lymbery, (now of the World Society for the Protection of Animals [WSPA]), is a landmark in retailing; Waitrose is the only other supermarket to have adopted a similar policy. It could be argued that it is easier for both Marks & Spencer and Waitrose to adopt this policy because they are substantially smaller players than larger competitors such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Safeway and Asda; in addition they have a more affluent customer base. Nevertheless it is a move to be welcomed. The Co-op was the first retailer in 1995 to label battery hens as 'Intensively Produced' - a trail-blazing decision which, at the time, was technically illegal. The Co-op now clearly label battery eggs as being 'From Caged Hens' despite the fact that 50 per cent of eggs they sell use this method of production. They also clearly label own label chilled and other recipe dishes so consumers can see if the eggs contained are from caged hens.


Egg Statistics

eggThe total number of eggs produced in the UK every year (source: DEFRA 2000 figures) number 8,940 million. The vast majority - 74 per cent - are produced intensively in 'battery hen' cages. Only 20 per cent are currently produced under 'Free-Range' systems and 6 per cent are produced in 'barn' systems.

The production of eggs from battery cages has been a flagship issue for CIWF for many years and greatly contributed to the European Union (EU) agreeing to prohibit barren battery cages by 2012. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, will implement the new Laying Hens Directive 99/74/EC in England and this, together with a new Welfare Code of Recommendation for Laying Hens, were brought before Parliament in May 2002.

From 2003 newly established battery hen units will only be allowed to install 'enriched' cages which must allow 750 cm sq per bird, together with a 'nest', perching space and scratching area. Existing battery hen units will be required to allocate a new minimum of 550 cm sq per bird and will be forced to make other changes on the grounds of animal welfare. These changes (such as fitting cages with suitable claw-shortening devices) offer only very minor additional welfare benefits. Elliot Morley, Animal Welfare Minister, recently stated he was not convinced enriched cages had any real advantages over conventional barren cages and is calling for opinions as to whether the UK should follow Germany's example and go further than the EU directive by banning enriched cages too.

Race to the Top visited what could be described as a 'state of the art' battery hen or caged farm system in Nottinghamshire operated by Deans Foods, who supply battery eggs for several of the multiples. Deans Foods are also a major supplier to M & S of free-range eggs. There were three vast units at the site we visited. Each is around 110 metres long and houses around 100,000 hens, confined five to a cage in a five-tier system. In total, 309,000 birds produce a weekly output of 1.7 million eggs. The cages have sloping mesh floors so the eggs roll forward into a section out of reach of the birds to await collection. Droppings pass through the mesh onto boards and are periodically removed. The system, eg ventilation and temperature, is almost entirely automated.

Each bird is allotted approximately 450 sq cm within its cage in accordance with current regulations. Typically, there is no natural lighting in such units and lighting is kept relatively dim, not least because it helps control bird aggression and activity. All the birds are beak-trimmed between 7 and 10 days of age.


It may be state of the art but to an observer unused to the sight, the overall experience was nevertheless distressing. It was felt that while the hens were undoubtedly safe, fed, and watered, the hens were cramped, the cages totally barren. In 1997, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), an independent advisory body established by the Government in 1979, stated that confinement in caged systems leads to weak and broken bones, feather and foot damage.

Whilst there was no evidence of distress, illness or ill health in any of the hens we saw, it was nevertheless obvious they were unable to perform any of the normal activities hens would naturally undertake and it is our view that they enjoyed no or little quality of life. While it may make sound economic sense to house laying hens in this way - just four staff, are responsible for the welfare of over 300,000 birds - from an animal welfare point of view such a system is totally unacceptable, however well managed.

How do barn and free-range systems differ from the caged hen system? In barn systems, the hen houses can be vast and hens have no access to the outside although they are not caged. There are two types of barn system - perchery and 'deep litter'. In perchery systems, hens have access to perches and feeders at different levels. In 'deep litter' systems, the floor area should be covered with a litter of straw, wood shavings or other approved material. In either a barn perchery or barn deep little system, nest boxes or communal nests must be provided. But hen houses are again vast - flock sizes may be well in excess of 50,000 birds divided into colonies of 6,000 birds or more. From 1st January 2007, new regulations will ensure hens in all non-cage systems of production have slightly improved conditions.

In 'free-range' systems European Egg Marketing Regulations stipulate that hens must have continuous daytime access to runs which are mainly covered with vegetation and with a maximum stocking density of 1,000 birds per hectare (395 birds per acre) although some sheds can house as many as 32,000 birds in a single shed divided into two 16,000 colonies. The vast majority of laying birds are in the UK are in flocks of 16,000 birds or more although smaller units may house hens in smaller, mobile units.

While Regulations set a minimum standard, there are many variations. For example, the Lion Quality Code of Practice, although primarily a food safety mark as it guarantees all hens under the Code have been vaccinated against Salmonella, does offer some additional welfare benefits - it stipulates lower stocking densities for hens in barn and free range systems for example although the vast majority of eggs marked with the Lion Code are from battery hens.


Free-range - the problems

Free-range systems are not necessarily automatically better from a welfare point of view. The FAWC recognises that, apart from the obvious risk of predators and the vagaries of the weather, one disadvantage, particularly in large flock sizes, is the practice of beak trimming deemed necessary to prevent bird aggression such as feather pecking and cannibalism though trials have shown that some breeds are less inclined to feather-peck than others.

Another reality of free-range systems is that despite the requirement for 'continuous access to outdoor runs mainly covered with vegetation', in fact it is extremely difficult to sustain a good level of vegetation, especially with commercial free-range flock sizes.

Given the vast scale of egg production in the UK - the egg industry needs to produce around 27 million eggs a day to satisfy demand - it is not difficult to see why caged systems are generally preferred, given the sheer economic reality of the extra land, workforce and expertise required to run a well-managed free range system.


The Marks & Spencer story

Marks and Spencer sell over one million whole eggs per week and for every egg sold, five eggs are used in prepared foods. According to Marks & Spencer's has around 4,000 lines in its product range compared to a minimum of 40,000 lines carried by the major multiples but all M & S lines are essentially 'own label' so all are included in the switch. Every manufacturer for M & S now has to source their eggs from a list of egg producers inspected and approved by Marks and Spencer. Mark Ranson, Marks & Spencer's animal welfare specialist, says the complexities of switching to using only non caged hen eggs has taken five years from 1997 to implement across the entire range.

Marks and Spencer set their own standards and codes of practice across the entire supply chain, with full traceability of every egg. The eggs are produced across approximately 70 Select Farms within the UK (Deans Foods is the largest supplier operating approximately 30 of these). M&S are currently reviewing their standards and introducing indicators of animal welfare so targets can demonstrably be set and measured on a regular basis.

M & S's decision has already exerted a significant effect on the overall free-range market in that far fewer free-range eggs are available to other sources. At the moment it could be difficult for any other multiple to follow M & S's example even if they wanted to simply because there aren't sufficient UK free-range units in existence.

Meanwhile, despite Marks and Spencer's initiative, the vast majority of consumers choose to buy eggs from caged hens. Price is clearly a key factor - free-range can be twice or even three times the price of caged hen eggs - but given the general consensus of opinion at the moment that consumers are becoming increasingly distanced from food production, it would be interesting to know if consumers don't really care how the eggs they choose to purchase have been produced from an animal welfare point of view, if they do care but can't afford to buy free-range - or if in fact they simply don't know enough to factor animal welfare considerations into the equation. Most people asked if they care about animal welfare would say yes. But sales from eggs from caged hens still outstrip free-range by a huge margin.

But what will happen when the cost of production in the UK becomes even more prohibitive? At present, some caged hen eggs are sold below the cost of production. This is also happening within the free-range egg market. The reality is that as animal welfare standards are driven up, some multiples and food manufacturers may be tempted to turn to import battery eggs because they are cheaper to produce. And in some countries animal welfare standards are barely an issue.


Posted: 04 Jul 2002

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