Low-welfare eggs are flooding into the UK from abroad, the Guardian can reveal, as experts warn the effects of Brexit could cause even more to be imported.
Official data reveals that between 2021 and August 2023 the number of eggs imported from Poland rose by more than 2,000%, from 46 consignments to 1,095. The number imported from Italy also increased by almost 300% between 2022 and 2023 from 72 consignments to 279, according to figures from the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
The total number of consignments imported went from 422 in 2021 to 2,120 in 2022, and has already reached 2,536 in the first eight months of 2023.
But the quality of products from these countries could be lower, experts have warned. A recent report showed that a large salmonella outbreak earlier this year was linked to Polish eggs. Concern has also been raised that post-Brexit trade deals could lead to a further decline in quality as low-welfare eggs from caged hens enter the UK.
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, said she was “staggered” by the import figures for the first eight months of 2023. “When the medical advice is to eat British Lion eggs [stamped to show they have been produced in accordance with a code of practice], why on earth would they be importing eggs produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK?” she asked. “It raises serious questions as to whether the government is checking food imports given the ongoing delays in the border target operating model.”
Gary Ford, the deputy chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council, echoed her concerns, saying it was “very disappointing” to see imports growing, “particularly at a time when British producers have been struggling due to poor returns”.
He said: “It’s also very concerning for consumers, with a recent report showing that a large salmonella outbreak earlier this year was linked to Polish eggs.”
The increase in imports comes amid shortages of stock, which began in late 2022 after egg farmers cut production because of spiralling costs due to food and energy price rises. UK egg production declined 8% in 2022 and 10% this year, according to official data.
Farmers have been raising the issue with the UK government, but the response has been unsympathetic. The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, was booed earlier this year at the National Farmers’ Union conference when she maintained she was “not necessarily seeing a market failure in poultry” despite empty shop shelves.
Retailers have sourced produce from elsewhere in Europe including Latvia and Hungary, data shows.
According to the Polish ecological and animal welfare organisation Klub Gaja, about 40 million layers are now bred in Poland, with 87% of them kept in cages. The average space for each hen is slightly larger than an A4 sheet of paper.
Concern has been raised that the quality of eggs could decline further as post-Brexit trade deals see the reintroduction of battery eggs. As part of the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), ministers are expected to give the green light to produce being imported from countries including Mexico.
The RSPCA’s head of public affairs, David Bowles, said that in 1999 the UK government agreed to a ban on battery cages: “The public has supported this ban by buying free range eggs and would be horrified if they knew low-welfare egg products are being sneaked into this country under the radar.” He said a lot of egg imports from overseas were now dried or liquid eggs, “which don’t have to be labelled and tend to be sourced on price, not provenance”.
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The RSPCA warned that without safeguarding domestic welfare standards when signing trade deals, “there would be a spike in low-welfare imports”. Bowles said the charity was concerned that phasing out tariffs on eggs imported from Canada would “open the door to as many low-welfare egg products as they can sell to the UK”.
Bowles called on the government to ensure that any future trade agreements, including with the EU, are “linked to equivalence to our standards”.
He said the rise in imports from Poland showed that “we remain vulnerable to imported caged eggs from abroad”. He added: “This could undercut and threaten the livelihood of egg producers here at home and undermines our higher domestic standards.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK egg industry operates in an open market and the value and trade of egg commodities is set by those in the supply chain including farmers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers. The UK is rightly proud of the high animal welfare standards that underpin our high-quality Great British produce.
“We will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK and will maintain our high standards as part of any future free trade agreements.”