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Image: Pexels / Cottonbro Studio
Image: Pexels / Cottonbro Studio

Time to ban cages for laying hens

Henry Smith MP
April 8, 2024

Last week Scotland announced it would launch a consultation on ending cages for laying hens – a welcome step forward in reforming a farming method widely believed to be out of kilter with public opinion and one which necessitates the suffering of millions of sentient animals each year.

This Easter marked two years since Defra committed to launching a similar call for evidence in 2022. Indeed, it was at a reception I hosted for my Bill to end cages for laying hens that then-Secretary of State George Eustice MP announced that a call for evidence would be launched that year. Two years later, the Government is yet to deliver this important measure. In the meantime, millions of hens have suffered short lives behind bars.

For some background, in 2012 barren battery cages were banned throughout Europe but ‘enriched’ battery cages are still legally permitted. While a little larger than battery cages, enriched cages still confine hens 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 or perform natural behaviours. This simply isn’t acceptable for a nation that prides itself on high animal welfare standards.

Indeed, acting to better our farming practices is a key concern for UK consumers, with an overwhelming 98 per cent of people stating that protecting the welfare of farmed animals is important to them.

Meanwhile, 88 per cent of the British public consider using cages in farming is cruel and 77 per cent support a complete ban on the use of cages in farming. Clearly there is a strong democratic mandate to take action, with such an overwhelming proportion of consumers in favour of ending the use of cages.

88 per cent of the British public consider using cages in farming is cruel Quote

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, living healthier and happier lives.

All major retailers have committed to going cage free by at least 2025. And many major restaurant chains are committing to similar measures – with McDonalds pledging last year to source all of its eggs from cage free farms across the whole US by 2025, and Burger King making a similar pledge for its chains worldwide. It is only right that our legislation reflects the strong public and commercial impetus for transitioning to a cage-free future.

Of course, one of the major obstacles to launching the long-awaited Call for Evidence has been fears the industry will be negatively impacted. But when considering the impact on egg producers, it's worth noting more than half are already operating cage-free farms. It is, therefore, unlikely that a full ban won't significantly disrupt the majority. 

However, for those producers who are still reliant on cages, the transition will necessitate the adoption of new practices and the replacement of existing infrastructure. Nonetheless, with appropriate support and resources, they will be able to effectively manage this shift.

Scotland will not be the first European country to end cages, either. Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, Slovakia and Czechia have all legislated to ban cages for laying hens, while seven US states have phased out cage-egg production. There is, therefore, a real risk that the rest of the UK will fall behind if we don’t act soon to outlaw cages for laying hens.

Only legislation can bring this cruel practice to an end, and it is my hope that England and Wales will follow suit in transitioning to a cage-free future.

Henry Smith

Henry Smith is the Conservative MP for Crawley.

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