The British Egg Industry Council has accused the government of "chickening out" following the announcement that it will not ban imports of illegal eggs and egg products from Europe once the conventional cage ban takes effect on 1 January 2012.
"The government has thoroughly investigated the possibility of bringing in a UK ban on all imports of egg and egg products produced in conventional cages in other member states," Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said. "However, given the very significant legal and financial implications, coupled with practical difficulties in enforcing it, it is not a realistic option."
"Because of a loophole in the egg marketing regulations, we cannot prohibit the marketing of any eggs produced in conventional cages from 1 January 2012, which are sent for processing, nor can we prohibit the use of any products made from such eggs," he said.
This has been disputed by the BEIC, which says it feels let down by the government. "Our legal advice has confirmed the government is able to enforce UK and EU law by banning illegal eggs and egg products - so why have they chickened out?" asked chief executive Mark Williams.
"British egg producers have invested heavily to meet their legal obligations - only to see their efforts jeopardised by an apparent lack of political will."
The BEIC has also criticised the minister's decision that, while any imported illegal shell eggs discovered will be prevented from being marketed as Class A, they will still be sent for processing.
"This will mean UK consumers could be eating eggs from battery hens, with the prospect that a flood of cheap illegal eggs will undermine the British egg industry, with the possible loss of thousands of jobs," it said.
Animal welfare organisations have also expressed dismay. "Our calls for an intra-community trade ban appear to have fallen on deaf ears, despite research showing that 78% of the public want to be protected from illegal eggs," said an RSPCA statement.