About a third of egg production in the EU is expected to miss the January 1 deadline for larger cages for battery hens, with access to perches.
UK egg producers, which have spent about £400M upgrading their facilities, say they risk being undercut by European rivals which have not made the same commitment.
Minister of state for agriculture and food James Paice said: “We need to protect producers across the EU who will have complied with the ban from unfair competition from those who fail to comply.
“It is over a year since we first told the Commission that it was quite obvious that a number of countries would not be able to comply in time.”
The UK intends to voice its concerns at a meeting of officials in Brussels this week. Paice said: this “really is the last chance for the EU to prove that it is serious about improving animal welfare and enforcing its regulations". But he said he was pessimistic about finding a solution in the coming days.
“I fully appreciate that UK producers have invested about £400M in new systems, and they are entitled to expect others to do the same; that is perfectly reasonable. As for the measures that will be taken if we do not get anywhere in Europe – and I cannot claim much optimism on that front – I will make an announcement shortly.
“A ban has not been ruled out, but there are some pretty big legal issues here.”
Colin Carter has invested £500,000 in the new equipment for his egg farm near Truro in Cornwall. He runs a £1M-a-year business with 22,000 laying hens.
“The law is the law and it should be applied throughout the EU,” he told FoodManufacture.co.uk. “Why are they thinking about banning something when they should be taking enforcement action?”
Consumers will not be able to tell which eggs comply with the new regulations and which do not. They will all be classified as Code 3, which applies to all eggs laid by caged birds.
UK producers argue that eggs produced from the enriched cages should be allowed to be marketed with a new classification, Code 4. The UK Egg Producer Retailer Association, representing about 12% of UK egg production, has been told by officials in Brussels that this system would confuse consumers.
Carter said this lack of clarity would make a sales ban impossible to enforce. “It’s unfair that the product is allowed to be sold in Europe but not produced in Europe but I can’t see how they can stop it coming in. How can they identify it, because it will all be classified as Code 3?”
The UK is the sixth largest egg producer in the EU and is home to 33M laying hens, making it 80% self sufficient in eggs and egg products, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The UK table egg industry is estimated to be worth £561M. Last year 826M dozen eggs were produced for human consumption, of which 50% came from caged birdS, 42% were classed as free range and 8.3% as barn and organic eggs.