Animal welfare groups and the Scottish Greens have criticised the Scottish Government for giving a £715,000 subsidy to one of Scotland’s largest egg producers with tens of thousands of caged hens.
Aberdeen and Northern Eggs – widely known as Farmlay – was given the grant to increase its grading and packing capacity in Strichen, Aberdeenshire as part of a £6 million award scheme for local food processors.
The Scottish Greens said that Scotland’s status as “good food nation” cannot be achieved “on the back of animal cruelty” and questioned the need to subsidise “a highly profitable company”.
Animal welfare charities warned that caging birds causes “immense animal suffering” and that public money was being used to support “an inhumane and outdated industry.’’
Farmlay stressed that it was “working towards being cage free by 2025” and that 60 per cent of its total egg production came from free range chickens.
The Scottish Government said it was “committed to the highest possible welfare standards for animals, including laying hens” and that the grant was “not linked to any particular method of production”.
According to a Good Farming Practice Award 2017 report, Farmlay supplied around four million eggs a week to supermarkets such as Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl. Half of these came from Farmlay’s 260,000 birds at its Strichen production unit and two other farms, while the other half came from “22 contracted producers throughout the north east.”
While the company also produces free-range and organic eggs, a 2017 report in The Press and Journal said that 60 per cent of Farmlay’s own eggs came from colony caged hens.
Caging hens ‘inhumane’
Colony hens are raised in “enriched cages”, which have become more common since battery cages were banned under EU law in January 2012. Enriched cages must give laying hens at least 750 cm² of cage area per bird for nesting, perching and dustbathing, as well as unrestricted access to food.
Animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) has stressed that enriched cages only provide a marginal space increase compared to battery cages. This results in birds losing feathers due to rubbing against cage bars and pecking from other hens, which is due to stress and boredom, according to CIWF.
Nick Palmer, Head of CIWF UK called the move from battery to colony cages “disastrous” and said “the British Egg Industry is at the brink of major reinvestment”.
He added: “With over 40% of the national flock needing to come out of cages, any financial support from Government should be made towards helping securing future proof systems that deliver the high standard of animal welfare expected by the British consumer.”
The Scottish Government grant will “prop up a system with the very lowest welfare provision, that gives hens the bare legal minimum at great cost to their general health and welfare." Tor Bailey, Animal Aid
Tor Bailey, a campaign manager at animal welfare charity, Animal Aid, said the Scottish Government grant would help “to prop up a system with the very lowest welfare provision, that gives hens the bare legal minimum at great cost to their general health and welfare.”
She argued that ministers should instead “be helping farmers to transition to plant-based agriculture, and giving them financial support to do so.”
A spokeswoman from campaign group Eyes on Animals said that enriched cages “have no viable future in a world where consumers want products produced using humane methods.”
She added: “Public money should be used to make positive changes in the way our food is produced, investing in both animal welfare and the environment, instead of supporting an inhumane and outdated industry.’’
Farmlay’s website says that it has been producing eggs since 1946, with three million eggs now produced a week, and is regularly audited by RSPCA Freedom Foods and the Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G).
“We proactively ensure our birds are kept in the best conditions and therefore produce the best eggs” the website says.
The page also claims that the factory is equipped with “state of the art technology” which monitors the birds’ weight, as well as their environment for air temperature, feed and water consumption.
‘Highly profitable’ company
A Scottish Government news release shows that Farmlay received the second largest share of the £6 million Food Processing, Marketing and Cooperation (FPMC) scheme given to 18 companies. The purpose of FPMC is to help companies “invest in infrastructure, upgrade or replace facilities, and purchase new equipment, as well safeguarding 345 jobs, and creating 156 new ones across Scotland.”
The Scottish Government said the award would create five new on-site jobs with a further five full time jobs for Farmlay’s suppliers while safeguarding existing positions.
Companies House accounts records show the Farmlay’s turnover was £16.5 million by the end of May 2017, its gross profit was £3.4 million and profit before tax was £1.8 million.
"If Scotland is truly to become a good food nation, it cannot be done on the back of animal cruelty." Mark Ruskell, Scottish Greens
Scottish Greens food and farming spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, said that “Ministers must explain why, in this instance, funding has been made available to a highly profitable company that intensively farms and cages its chickens.”
He added: “If Scotland is truly to become a good food nation, it cannot be done on the back of animal cruelty. “
Pru Elliott, head of campaigns at The Humane League UK said her organisation had worked with nearly 100 major UK brands to encourage “public policies to eliminate cage eggs from their supply chains because they recognise the suffering of birds in these systems.”
“Subsidies should be reserved for businesses that are taking progressive steps for animal welfare”.
Bob Elliot, director of the Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity OneKind said he hoped the public subsidy would allow Farmlay to help phase-out the use of colony cages “which is in line with latest public opinion and the pledges made by supermarkets.”
“We hope the company sees this investment as an opportunity to convert to 100% free range and organic egg production.”
A Farmlay spokesperson said that the Scottish Government grant “was awarded solely to increase packing capacity and has nothing to do with production.
“As a business we are working towards being cage free by 2025 and to demonstrate this our free range is now 60 per cent of our total production. We are pleased that the Scottish Government chose Farmlay as a progressive efficient business to invest in for the future of our packing facilities and the future of our farmer base.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said they recognised “the welfare concerns that some people have about caged egg production. Consumers and retailers are increasingly buying free-range eggs, which has driven a change towards greater free-range production which now accounts for 60 per cent of eggs laid and bought in Scotland.”
They highlighted that all grant applicants underwent strict assessment procedures and that public money was only provided to businesses operating with all relevant statutory and regulatory consents.
The spokesperson added that the grant would allow Farmlay “to continue to respond to changes in the sort of eggs demanded by their customers into the future.”