The government has been accused of ‘chickening out’ on its promise to protect UK egg producers who have complied with a new EU law designed to improve welfare.

The new legislation prohibits the use of conventional ‘battery’ cages from 1 January 2012 and British egg producers have invested £400m on phasing out battery cages, but producers in 13 other EU countries, including Spain, Italy and Poland, have ignored the EU ban.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) claims the government has not done enough to obtain a complete ban on eggs that do not fulfill the new rules.

More than 90% of British Lion cage eggs already come from new, enriched colony cages and all will be up to the new standards by 1 January, but it is estimated that more than a third of EU cage egg production will break the new rules, with 84 million hens still kept in illegal battery cage conditions next year.

However, the government says it has instead been working closely with the domestic egg industry, processors, food manufacturers, the food service sector and retailers to reach a voluntary consensus that they won’t sell or use battery-farmed eggs, which will help British consumers to avoid unwittingly buying them.

Mark Williams, chief executive of BEIC, said: “The UK egg industry feels totally let down by the government. While we have received repeated platitudes of support from Defra, it has failed to back these up with any real action. We need to see a complete ban on any illegally produced eggs, egg products and foods containing illegal eggs from 1 January 2012. That way, British consumers will know exactly what they are getting.

“Our legal advice has confirmed that the UK Government is able to enforce UK and EU law by banning illegal eggs and egg products – so why have they chickened out? EU member states have had more than 12 years to get their houses in order and comply with the new legislation, so there should be no excuses. British egg producers have invested heavily to meet their legal obligations – only to see their efforts jeopardised by an apparent lack of political will.”

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said: “It is unacceptable that after the ban on battery cages comes into effect, around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions. We have all had plenty of time to make these changes, but 13 EU nations have not done so. The UK egg industry alone has spent £400m ensuring hens live in better conditions. It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law.

“British shoppers should be reassured that, as long as they buy food containing eggs from those companies who have guaranteed not to use or sell eggs from battery cages, they will be supporting higher-welfare standards and British egg producers.”