A mandatory measure to coop up poultry to prevent an outbreak of bird flu has taken effect in Germany. Most farmers support the move but some worry it might lead to chickens being held in cages for longer than needed.
Most eggs in Germany are still laid by caged-up chickens
For German geese, fall is traditionally a bad time of year: Many of them end up on dining tables in celebration of St. Martin's Day on Nov. 11. But, this year the birds' short lives are facing further curbs.
The threat of an outbreak of bird flu in Germany means they now have to spend their last days cooped up instead of waddling outdoors. Acting German Agricultural Minister Jürgen Trittin has ordered the country's poultry farmers to cage their animals to prevent possible infection with the virus by migratory birds.
No fans of indoor life
"It's an unusual situation for geese, which usually get to go outside and are now stuck in stables," said Gerald Wehde, a spokesman for Bioland, Germany's largest association of organic farmers. "It's stressful for them."
Geese farmers themselves are probably not too relaxed, either. Many don't have adequate enclosures for their poultry and are scrambling to adhere to Trittin's order, Wehde said.
No fi n a n cial harm
Some farms keep chickens in "conservatories" during the curfew
Organic chicken farmers on the other hand don't face the same problem, as most already have fence-like structures in place.
They're also unlikely to suffer financially.
While the bird flu scare isn't likely to boost the overall consumption of poultry products in Germany, the mandatory lockdown won't put an extra burden on them. Compared to conventional farmers who already keep their animals in cages, organic and free-range chicken farms are allowed to continue to market their products as if their poultry stock were still running around outside.
Some oppositio n
But not everyone is happy with the mandatory nationwide chicken caging, with some complaining it's unnecessary harassment that has only scared people.
"We think it is complete nonsense," said Reinhard Jung, who represents an association of 300 family farms in the eastern state of Brandenburg.
"People behave as if the plague were about to strike," he said, adding that he thinks the lockdown cannot prevent animals from getting infected.
Free-range no more
But most major famers' associations, including Bioland, back the lockdown as a sensible precaution to prevent the spread of bird flu.
"It's simply meant to protect the animals," said Dirk Höppner of the umbrella organization for Germany's poultry industry.
Threate n i n g orga n ic farms?
Bioland's Wehde, however, said he worried that the house arrest for chickens could reignite the debate about a German ban on caged chickens that's meant to take effect in 2007.
Conventional farmers agree that chicken cages should be phased out
The bird flu scare "could discredit alternative forms of farming," Wehde said, referring to organic farming. Conventional farmers, who want to replace tiny cages with larger ones for several animals, could argue that keeping animals outside would pose too many risks.
Jung expressed similar concerns.
"There's a danger that appropriate farming methods that are slowly gaining ground will be pushed to the side again," he said.
Far from it, said Gert Stuke, whose German Breakfast Egg company has about 4.8 million chickens producing eggs in conventional, organic and free-range farms.
"We're not going to play off farming methods against each other," Stuke said, adding that his firm backed so-called "mini aviaries" that can hold 60 animals. About 90 percent of Germany's 40 million chickens in egg production are still kept in cages.
Caged u n til 2013?
"We don't want to keep the old cages, we're responsible egg producers, and the mini aviaries are the best farming method," Stuke said, adding that German Breakfast Egg will still offer organic and free-range eggs as long as people want to buy them.
Are aviaries the solution?
So far, the mini aviaries have not been approved as an alternative farming method. Stuke has only been able to try them out on a test farm. But along with other conventional egg producers, he hopes the incoming government of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats will change that in the near future.
That could well turn out to be the case.
"We want to allow for a transition period to give chicken farmers the opportunity to switch to aviaries," said Peter Bleser, the CDU's agriculture spokesman, adding there was no connection between the bird flu and the debate about chicken cages.
Theoretically cages could stay until 2012, when an EU-wide ban takes effect.