Soaring inflation, massive bankers’ bonuses, Tory government... 2011 is turning out to be so gloriously ’80s-retro that an egg scare was, perhaps, an inevitability. What is more surprising is that it could even happen in 2011, given that manufacturing bakers have more traceability systems in place than you could shake a quiche at.

Despite the infinitesimal levels of dioxin believed to have made it into two bakeries’ supermarket products, following a recent contamination in one German egg supplier, one of those affected Finsbury Foods is having to battle its insurers to recover the costs of pulling products from shelves.

It serves as a timely reminder to revisit your food safety procedures. "The message of the dioxin scare is that knowing the origin of eggs is really important, making sure that testing is taking place at an appropriate place in the supply chain, and making sure liquid egg is coming in certificated, and their animal feed suppliers are accredited," said Liz Paterson, marketing director of Eurofins, which specialises in dioxin testing of foods.

Battery cage laws

The dioxin scare timely reminder though it may be is perhaps the least of the bad eggy whiffs the baking industry will have to worry about in 2011. Battery cages for laying hens are set to be outlawed across the EU from January next year. While the UK is up to speed, it is estimated that 30% of eggs produced in Europe will fail to meet new welfare standards. Nearly a third of the 3bn eggs consumed in the UK each year are imported, with 80% of these being egg products used in manufacturing, and this has sparked fears of a spike in prices and concerns over availability.

In the UK, battery cages are being replaced with larger, enriched ’colony cages’ that have around 50% more room per bird, along with a nest, more height, perching space and a scratching area, with room to move about the colony. The UK has made huge strides in converting from battery to enriched, from 9% of the 32 million laying hens in 2009 to 43% by the end of this year (as an aside, free range is set to hit 50% of all eggs by the end of the year, driven purely by market demand).

"We will be ready," stated Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council. "We believe our intelligence to be accurate, based on talks with member states and government: out of an EU laying flock of 354 million laying hens, 62% were still be sitting in a conventional cage by the end of 2009. Not a lot has happened in Europe since. We believe 29% of all the laying hens in Europe will be illegal on 1 January 2012, which is a staggering figure."

That equates to 83 million eggs a day. So what happens if the member states enforce this ban on battery cages, as they should? Firstly, there would be an egg shortage and, due to strict rules on salmonella, few countries are authorised to export eggs to the UK to meet the shortfall; prices could increase sharply.

If the member states don’t enforce the legislation and history shows this has been the case in certain states there will be hens sitting in battery cages producing eggs. "Those eggs will enter the market and cause total market disruption that will affect producers, the viability of their business and the pricing in all sectors including free-range and organic," warned Williams.

"Our current coalition government is in total support of an intra-EU trade ban to be put in place for the beginning of next year if member states are not enforcing this ban on conventional cages properly. If eggs are still being produced out of illegal cages, we do not want to see them crossing the English Channel."

The reality is that the EU is likely to extend the time it gives for member states to comply, as happened with the ban on stalls and tethers in pig farming, which the UK complied with, but on which some states lagged behind, said National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall. "Consumers across the whole of Europe expressed the desire to have a higher welfare level for laying hens," he said. "The EU legislated for that and, fair enough, we have to live with it. British farmers have stepped up to the plate and probably 99% have done this. In Europe, that is just not the case. We’ve seen this happen to agricultural markets in the past; the key protagonists failing to move forward are Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain. Poland is non-compliant too. We know that, in this economic climate, every penny counts, but we need manufacturers to get behind the UK’s egg producers, who have invested in high welfare standards."

Kensey Foods, one of the two bakeries affected by the dioxin scare, said that during peak periods of production, it was not always possible to source from the UK, despite best intentions. Egg producers say more demand would stimulate increased production. But few bakeries are aware of the legislative change.

Missed message

In a qualitative survey of 24 egg buyers in manufacturing and foodservice, 46% had no idea about the new law (British Lion Eggs, November 2010). "Clearly the message has not got through," said Ian Jones, vice-chairman of British Lion Egg Processors. "When it comes to egg products, they are seen as a hidden ingredient and are forgotten about. When you talk about cake, you don’t instantly think about egg products. Only a minority of egg products sold in this country are specified to be British Lion Eggs." While 95% of eggs sold in retail are now British Lion Eggs-certified, which has rigorous standards over and above the EU, the dioxin scare could finally prod reluctant manufacturers the same way.