EU left with egg on its face

The eurocrats are probably just as poorly informed of the difficulties of being a pig farmer.

So fans of eggs and rashers should prepare to pay more.

How much more punishment can intensive farmers such as producers of eggs and pigs take? No more, seems to be the answer on many of the EU’s poultry farms.

They have given up — and the result is that egg prices have nearly tripled in some member states.

Relatively small in number, these farmers do not have the clout of milk, beef, or grain producers.

They didn’t squeal loud enough while record world grain prices sent production costs sky high; consumers demanded greater pig and chicken comforts; and wholesalers and retailers continued their usual squeeze-until-they-bleed treatment.

As the banning of conventional battery cages for hens neared on last New Year’s Day, the food industry and the EU authorities behind the ban didn’t realise so many farmers were going to give up their struggle to make a living.

Instead, the market has been surprised by a 10%-15% reduction in EU egg production. Many egg producers — mainly in eastern and southern member states — failed to replace their old cages in time.

In Spain, for example, they now have 20% fewer eggs.

As supply falls and demand continues, the farm–gate price for eggs has increased 72% in Spain between the end of 2011 and the end of February. In the Czech Republic, one egg cost 2.50 crowns in December, and 7 crowns in the run-up to Easter.

After years of hard times, many egg farmers did not have the necessary funds to install the improved cages which are now compulsory.

In Spain, they culled 8m hens, and the country now has to import eggs from South America.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Portugal are the other countries believed by the EU authorities to have not improved poultry welfare in time.

However, more countries are also affected. Inexplicably, wholesale egg prices in the UK have increased to their highest levels ever.

The huge egg price rise in the Czech Republic occurred because the country relied heavily on imports of eggs from Poland.

France is short 21m eggs a week, or 10% of overall production, and egg prices there shot up 75% between October last year and last February. Cake and brioche manufacturers say some of them may have to shut down production and temporarily lay off workers, if egg shortages continue.

And it could all happen again on next New Year’s Day; except it is pigmeat that will go missing from the breakfast fry, along with the eggs.

By Jan 1, 2013, farmers must have group housing for sows, permanent access to materials for rooting by sows and gilts, and improved flooring surfaces. A partial ban on sow stalls is due.

From Jan 2013, sow stalls will be outlawed in the EU and, with some limited exceptions, all breeding pigs must be group-housed for most of their lives.

With pig housing much more expensive than poultry housing, it is no surprise that fewer than half of the EU member states are expected to be fully compliant with the pig comfort directive.

The industry expects that pig production in the EU will fall by between 5% and 10%, when pig farmers quit the industry because they will be unable or unwilling to comply with the new sow stall ban.

Just as for the egg industry, the European Commission has made it clear it expects the new rules to be rigorously enforced, and it will initiate proceedings against member states which are not fully compliant.

The commission had predicted a 2.5% drop in egg production across the EU, but the current supply slump is estimated to be as much as six times greater.

The eurocrats are probably just as poorly informed of the difficulties of being a pig farmer. So fans of eggs and rashers should prepare to pay more.

Even the normal year to year fluctuations in pig production have led to significant shifts in price. If production falls by 5%, prices could be at least 10% higher.

Or industry predictions of rigorous enforcement of the new pig welfare rules leading to a 10% cut in pig meat output in 2013 could result in pigmeat going beyond the means of some consumers.

If prices go high enough, imports from outside the EU will fill the gap.

Unfortunately, EU consumers will have no say in animal welfare in the countries exporting these eggs.

However, imported eggs may be more sustainable and profitable for the non-EU producers, far away from the relentless financial pressure from EU retailers and food processors who want too much of the supply chain profit for themselves.


Kevin O’Hanrahan, clinical psychologist, HSEWorking life: HSE clinical psychologist Kevin O’Hanrahan

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