Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Battery hen cages to be outlawed
Welfare groups condemn battery farming as cruel
European Union farm ministers have agreed to outlaw battery hen cages from 2012.
Ministers from the 15 EU countries agreed the move at a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday,.
There are still sharp disagreements on the issue, but an increasing number of British farmers are already choosing to give hens their freedom.
Ministers arriving for the meeting were faced by protesters from welfare groups, sensing a real chance to end what they claim is the cruel practice of battery farming.
"Battery hens have been singled out for criticism. I'm sure consumers will support this decision."
Under the agreement, the maximum amount of space allocated per hen in existing cages in EU countries will be increased from 450 to 550 square centimetres from 2003.
This will mean reducing the number of hens in a normal cage from five to four. The measures will be reviewed in 2005.
Also, from 2003 it will be forbidden to introduce new cages that are not "enriched cages".
These have a minimum of 750 square centimetres per hen, and must be equipped with better ventilation and other welfare features. All cages must conform to the new standards from 2012.
Speaking about battery farming, Caroline Le Suer, from the RSPCA, said: "In this system the birds are very restricted, unable to form normal behaviours, and there's now substantial evidence that this actually causes harm to the health of the birds.
"In the UK alone, over 80% of the birds are kept in battery cages."
With many consumers now prepared to pay a bit more for free range eggs, an increasing number of British farmers are already choosing to do away with battery cages.
A battery farm shed would contain three or four times the number of hens.
Free range farmer Tim Howlett said: "We have designed here a shed that is commercially viable but at the same time incorporates all the freedoms that are required for chickens to live a normal life.
"They can come and go out of the shed as they please, they have dust bathe areas inside the shed, nest boxes, roosting, and permanent access to water and food."