Which came first - the Seder or the egg?

The humble egg is a staple of the Pesach diet, with a place on the Seder plate, dipped in salt water before the main meal and as a general source of nutrition throughout the festival.

But with less than a month to go before Seder night, the National Farmers' Union has warned that Britain could face a nationwide egg shortage because of new EU rules on the welfare of hens.

At the start of the year, the EU brought in the Welfare of Laying Hens Directive, which banned farmers from keeping hens in conventional battery cages. Although welcomed by animal rights activists, farmers have complained that the move was costly and that "enriched cages" require more work.

The change is estimated to have cost British farmers £400 million, pushing prices up for consumers and also making egg production unsustainable for smaller farmers, because to comply with the regulations they could end up operating at a loss.

In addition, across the EU, compliance with the new rules has been weaker than in Britain, meaning that stocks of eggs on the Continent are falling and former exporters are having to import their eggs from elsewhere.

An NFU spokesman warned that unless something was done, "there is a possibility that this could lead to a shortage in the egg market." With eggs at risk, the knock-on effects on Anglo-Jewry's Pesach eating habits could be catastrophic.

A veteran Pesach-maker, who blogs as The Jewish Mother, said she would be willing to sacrifice her egg-and-onion and could find cake recipes that did not require eggs. But she added: "My egg and salt water? I look forward to it all year.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little concerned right now. It's symbolic of the story of Pesach and in my 50ish years we've never gone without it.

"It would be a real shame. At times like this, I wish there were more Jewish farmers."

A spokesman from the United Synagogue's Living and Learning department cautioned against panic, explaining that though much-loved, the egg is "not an essential element of the contemporary Seder."

He offered alternatives for the seder plate, including "a carefully placed photograph of an egg, a plastic toy egg or even a Faberge egg to the table, if one is so inclined".

However, aware that the Seder coincides with Easter this year, he added: "We would, however, caution against serving Cream Eggs, Mini Eggs or Easter Eggs in salt water, unless of course one is able to source kosher for Passover versions.

"Fortunately, whatever you do may encourage further questions - the essence of any good Seder."

Last updated: 3:31pm, March 15 2012