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As of Jan. 1, 2012, egg-laying hens across many European countries will live with fewer discomforts: The European Commission has officially implemented its ban on battery cages, the notoriously cramped cages used by many egg farmers and criticized by animal rights proponents and veterinarians who call them cruel and harmful to the birds' welfare.
The law, finalized in 1999, comes after a 12-year "phase-out" period meant to allow egg farmers time to implement the costly transition away from battery cages. According to the Scotsman newspaper, replacing battery cages with more-hospitable "enriched" cages has alone cost U.K. egg producers an estimated £400 million ($613 million).
Most farmers in participating countries have opted for the enriched cages, installing roomier enclosures that allow hens to stretch their wings, roost on an elevated platform and nest in a designated nesting area. Others have arranged for barns or other free-range systems, but the law now clearly reserves hens a seat at a nest.
That opportunity to properly nest will do the most to improve hen well-being, said Ian J.H. Duncan, Ph.D., Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph in Ontario and the President of the Animal Welfare Foundation of Canada. Duncan has been studying the effects of battery cages on hens since the early 1970s, when he worked at the Poultry Research Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.