Laying hen welfare standards: a classic case of 'power to the people'
Legislation concerning laying hen welfare appears to be influenced more by public perceptions than by scientific and commercial evidence. This paper considers public understanding and power over the issue, and how welfare standards are structured. The usual objection to battery cages is that they do not provide enough space, but there seems to be ignorance of the fact that they were developed in order to improve the health of hens. Evidence is presented of more advantages than disadvantages with cage systems, and of the opposite with alternative (non-cage) housing. Why, then, does the public remain more concerned about just one of the Farm Animal Welfare Council's Five Freedoms — to display most normal patterns of behaviour — than about the other four? Arguably, the declared intent to ban battery cages in the EU in 2012 could not have been based justifiably on evidence in the European Commission Scientific Veterinary Committee's Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens. One therefore has to conclude that the decision to ban battery cages was taken for mainly political reasons, reflecting a belief that the majority of public opinion is against cages. Directive 99/74/EC will allow the use of 'enriched cages' after 2012, but, for political reasons, Germany intends to ban battery cages in 2007 and enriched cages in 2012. Following a recent public consultation on a possible similar ban on enriched cages in England, it was decided to defer a decision until after Directive 99/74/EC is reviewed in 2005. In one non-EU country, Switzerland, a national referendum led to a ban on battery cages in 1992. At present, there are ambiguities in minimum standards for different housing systems based on Directive 99/74/EC, which can be exploited by egg producers, sometimes at the expense of bird welfare. These concern stocking densities, the provision of claw-shortening devices, litter and perches, and the practice of beak trimming. They raise the question of the extent to which the structuring of welfare standards should represent a compromise between bird welfare, practicalities, public pressure and commercial interests.
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