Supermarkets will be forced to sell imported eggs from 2012 if fears that UK producers will not be ready for the ban on eggs from battery birds are realised. Battery cages will be outlawed by the EU in 2012, at which time standard egg producers will have to switch to the higher-welfare enriched colony system, barn-reared or free-range production. A combination of complacency and a lack of investment funds meant some UK producers were not prepared, said Martyn Gibbons of Yorkshire egg supplier Knowle End Farm.

“Will the industry by ready? I don’t think so,” he said. “Our competitors in Germany and Holland are ready. The UK government needs to put its hand in its pocket and give interest-free loans to producers to buy enriched cages. Our industry will be annihilated if we’re not careful.” Eggs on UK shelves are currently almost entirely produced in this country, although retailers had to import them during a shortage in December 2006. About 60% of eggs sold in this country currently come from caged production.

However, the situation was worse elsewhere in Europe, insisted Mark Williams, CEO of the British Egg Industry Council. A delayed EU review of the original proposals, finally published this year, meant producers across the continent had little time to adapt, he said.

“People have been waiting for an EU report that was three years late. Nearly 80% of 390 million laying hens now have to be switched. The industry faces a pretty torrid time.” Unlike Gibbons, Williams predicted UK producers would be “there or thereabouts” in terms of reaching the targets.

There is little hope of producers gaining an extension to the ban. French agriculture minister Michel Barnier said last week that there should be no delay, a position echoed by Defra. The concerns come as the RSPCA this week called on the Government to ban all cages and limit egg production to barn and free-range systems, a position the NFU called “irresponsible and short-sighted”.