German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner has proposed that products containing eggs must carry information on the housing system used for laying hens, but many of her European colleagues voiced concerns about the red tape this could entail.
In an informal video conference of EU agricultural ministers on Monday (26 April), Klöckner called on the European Commission to work out a proposal for an obligatory labelling system for foodstuffs containing eggs.
For unprocessed eggs, the housing system used for laying hens already has to be indicated as part of the producer’s distinguishing number, ranging from 0 for organic to 3 for cage farming.
The proposal would see a similar system extended to mayonnaise, baked goods and other products containing processed eggs.
“A lot of consumers want transparency, […] they want to know about animal conditions”, Klöckner said during the meeting, arguing that the type of housing used in egg production is linked to the welfare of laying hens.
As part of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, “we also want to improve human health and this is one way of doing that”, she pointed out.
Klöckner’s proposal comes just months after the ministers approved blueprints for an EU-wide animal welfare label in December 2020, under the then-German presidency of the Agrifish Council.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides welcomed Klöckner’s initiative, highlighting that the Commission was already working on the issue.
Pointing out that more than half of laying hens are currently kept in cages, she said that extending labelling obligations for processed eggs “could speed up the shift towards non-cage farming methods”.
Kyriakides also pointed to a working group on animal welfare labelling started by the European Commission, which she expects to present conclusions before summer.
She also announced that the Commission is going to launch an external study on the topic, and is considering extended labelling of processed eggs as part of the Farm to Fork strategy.
However, during Monday’s meeting, many ministers voiced concerns about the burden on food producers.
“We don’t want to increase red tape for businesses, so what we do needs to be done in a way that does not make life difficult for them”, Italy’s agriculture minister Stefano Patuanelli warned, although he was generally favourable to the initiative.
However, Greece’s Spilios Livanos argued that EU action on animal welfare labelling should not go further than what was already in place.
“Breeding standards are only indirectly linked with animal welfare and environmental impact. […] We need to ensure that food businesses will not be excessively burdened through all this.”
Irish minister Charlie McConalogue recalled December’s Council conclusions on animal welfare labelling.
“Those proposals will require a comprehensive impact assessment. […] It would be prudent to await the outcome of that first”, before pressing ahead with further labelling requirements.
Several delegations, including Hungary and Bulgaria, also raised concerns regarding a level playing field for food producers across the EU.
“A mandatory labelling requirement would distort the Single Market, creating unjustified competitive disadvantages for operators”, said Hungary’s Zsolt Feldman.
The German poultry industry endorsed the initiative, saying that German egg producers have long been advocating for obligatory labelling of processed eggs.
“We urgently need EU-wide provisions on this issue, as more than half of eggs are consumed through processed food”, Henner Schönecke of the German Federal Egg Industry Association said, adding that the industry would be happy to support political actors in developing a harmonised system.
Animal welfare campaigners commended Klöckner’s proposal as a step towards an animal welfare labelling system for all animal products.
“The label needs to clearly and concisely indicate the methods used for production during rearing, transport and slaughter”, Inês Ajuda, farmed animals programme leader at Eurogroup for Animals, told EURACTIV.
Similar to the system already in place for unprocessed eggs, she added, the new label should range “from the minimum legal EU requirements to premium levels.”
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]