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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 20:03 GMT
Campaign against chicken cruelty
By Jeremy Cooke
Rural affairs correspondent, BBC News

The government has confirmed it is to press ahead with the implementation of an EU regulation outlawing the production of battery-farmed eggs by 2012, despite pressure from farmers. But what is life really like for hens kept in such cramped conditions in the push for profits?

Battery hen
The EU wants battery farming banned by 2012

For years battery cage systems have been a key target of those who campaign against cruelty in farming.

For them, keeping thousands of chickens in small cages with each one allocated a space the area of a piece of A4 paper is simply unacceptable.

Certainly, when I visited a battery egg production unit in Cheshire it was a striking experience.

In each huge dimly-lit shed there were some 24,000 chickens. They were in small wire cages. There were six birds in each cage. The cages stacked five tiers high.

With automated belts delivering food and removing eggs and waste it easy to see why this system is often described as "factory farming".

There is no facility for the birds to scratch or perch or do anything other than feed, drink and lay eggs.

'Cramped and dismal'

But I was struck at how clean the facility was. The overwhelming smell I was expecting was not there. The condition of the chickens was also better than I'd anticipated.

Still there's no getting over the fact that the conditions for the chickens were cramped and dismal.

For years the European Union has agreed that the battery system must be banned. They've set a deadline of 2012.

But many farmers in the UK had hoped, and believed, that the timetable would slip and that the whole issue would be postponed.

But the Secretary of State for Agriculture and Food takes a different view. He's telling farmers that, in four years' time, battery cages will be outlawed.

"There have been some people who have been arguing that we should delay the implementation of that ban but it is not a view that I share. I think the change is long overdue and one which the public supports," he said.

Price rise

There seems little doubt that increasingly welfare-conscious consumers will agree with Mr Benn.

But for many others the banning of battery farming could mean an unwelcome increase in the price of eggs.

One of our leading supermarkets sells battery eggs at 73p for half a dozen. Free range eggs go for 1.28.

So what's so special about free range? Well the free range unit I visited was very different to the cage system. The birds are housed in a huge barn, but allowed out through pop-holes onto nearby fields.

It is still large-scale food production but seeing chickens outdoors left me in no doubt that welfare standards are higher when hens can scratch and perch and exhibit basic, instinctive behaviour.

So the question is one of a balance between welfare and cost. The government has decided that - in egg production at least - welfare is of increasing importance.

Inside a battery poultry farm

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