European Commission Savaged Over Battery Hens

03 September 2010
Feathers flew in Brussels this week as SNP MEP Alyn Smith savaged the Commission during a bad-tempered Agriculture Committee debate on a study into the EU's egg and poultry sector.

The Commission official, nominally there to respond to MEP questions, was flatly unable to do so, provoking an official complaint from Smith both to Committee President Paolo de Castro and in his own right to Commissioners Ciolos and Dalli.
 
The report was a stock take of the sector as a whole, but also highlighted concerns that a number of EU states may well not make the January 2012 deadline for phasing out battery cages for chickens, replacing them with aviaries, barns or other higher welfare standards.  Member states agreed to have the new plant in place by January 2012 but fears have been expressed that as much as 29% of EU egg and poultry meat production could be, in effect, illegal unless the standards are met.  The Scottish, and UK, egg and poultry sector is well on the way to achieving the higher welfare standards.
 
Smith has written to Commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian Ciolos, and Commissioner for Health, John Dalli, expressing his unhappiness at the conduct of the meeting, asking for a definitive statement on progress towards the deadline and calling for an export ban on those states unable to comply by the deadline, should they fail to achieve it.
 
Speaking in the meeting, Smith said:
 
"I'm concerned at this report and the animal welfare issue, and suspect we have a problem coming down the tracks at us.  At page 42 of the report you make clear that currently 59% of egg production is from battery hens, yet the deadline to phase these cages out is just over a year away.  At paragraph 6 of your conclusions, on page 93, you say that available EU aid for investing in new plant has not been taken up.  This deadline was agreed by the member states and Parliament back in 1999: are we going to achieve it?  You'll be aware of reports that we're going to miss it - what is plan B?
 
"I'm also concerned at your findings on imports from outside the EU, and come back to the long-established view of this Committee that there is a world of difference between 'equivalent' animal welfare standards and 'the same' animal welfare standards.  Your report, very helpfully, at page 68 stresses that 66% of our citizens want the same standards: why is the Commission so in thrall to the unelected WTO to allow imports of food which simply do not match our standards?  This is an issue, of course, in all animal product imports, from chlorinated chicken to lamb, Brazilian beef and other meats.  Our consumers want the same standards, this Committee wants the same standards, why are we not enforcing them?
 
"I'd also like to ask, bringing this principle closer to home, what plans there are to encourage member states to meet the deadline for phase out of battery cages?  If, as we fear, as much as 29% of production were to be illegal it would make a mockery of the EU to destroy so much food, yet to allow exports from those member states who have not met the standards to those member states that have would be deeply unfair.  Can I suggest that in the event an extension to the deadline is regrettably necessary, then an export ban on those states which do not meet the standards, until such time as they do, is the only equitable solution to maintain the integrity of the single market."

Speaking after the non-response of the Commission official, Smith said:

"President, I think we need to register our irritation with the Commission's performance here today.  I fully appreciate that the Commission is a complex organisation and one individual may well not be able to answer a wide range of questions, but 'that's someone else's department' is not an answer and is a gross discourtesy to the elected legislature - it is not as if these questions would not come up.  Can I ask that you communicate our unease to the Commissioners for Agriculture and Health and remind them that we're not asking for special favours, we demand a team, if a team is necessary, of Commission officials who are able to answer our questions.  We've had plenty bla bla meetings with the Commissioners themselves where we talk about our good co-operation, today wasn't it."

Speaking after the meeting, Smith said:
 
"This was a scrappy meeting today, and where the Parliament is back with all cylinders firing after the summer break, it seems the Commission's mind is still on the beach somewhere.
 
"The assurance from the Commission official that the Commission remains of the view that the 2012 deadline will be met seems a remarkably unrealistic position to express, especially when he was unable to answer any questions as to why, or to respond to the report which gives facts and figures as to how we are likely to miss.
 
"Scots producers would be rightly dismayed, having invested heavily to meet high standards, if the Commission gave laggard member states a bye for another few years.  This would allow imports from EU countries with lower standards to undercut our producers, and the whole EU system would look silly.  Equally, to destroy such valuable food would be sillier still, so if an extension for some states is necessary then so be it, though we should look at fines and we should certainly implement an export ban on those states which fail to meet the standard."