BRUSSELS - Brussels issued an ultimatum to 13 European nations Thursday to improve conditions for tens of millions of laying-hens held in tiny cramped cages -- or face legal action in two months.
One out of seven laying-hens in Europe -- or 47 million of 330 million-- are cooped up in cages no bigger than a standard piece of typing paper.
Under a 1999 law that came into force January 1 and ignored by half the members of the 27-country bloc, egg-laying hens must be kept in so-called "enriched cages", with "extra space to nest, scratch and roost."
The legislation states hens be given at least 750 square centimeters of space -- which is only a little larger than a piece of A4 paper -- as well as a nest-box, litter, perches and claw-shorteners "to satisfy their biological and behavioural needs."
"Full compliance with the requirements of the directive by member states is essential," a European Commission statement said.
Countries had 12 years to comply.
The Commission listed Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Romania as the countries failing to comply with the animal welfare rules.
The defaulting nations "not only create consequences for animal welfare but can also cause market distortions and unfair competition" by putting businesses that invested in line with the new measures at a disadvantage, the Commission said.
As of January 1, eggs from hens kept in illegal cages were no longer eligible for export or retail sales. They are however allowed for industrial use.
Malta escaped threatened action after complying fully but Britain is under watch, added Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent, with "one percent" of its egg production "illegal."
EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli warned earlier this month on unveiling new moves to improve animal welfare that he would launch infringement procedures against states that breached the rules on hens.
"The recent coming into force of the 'laying hens' legislation has shown that problems persist in animal welfare in several member states," Dalli said. "Some efforts are being made, but many issues need to be tackled in a different way in order to achieve more sustainable results."
The commission now wants to tackle the poor living conditions of sows.