Eggs lose free-range status as producers mull bird flu measures
Millions of eggs have temporarily lost their free-range status after farmers were forced to keep hens inside barns to limit the spread of bird flu.
An avian influenza prevention zone was declared on December 6, forcing owners to keep poultry and captive birds indoors or to take steps to separate them from wild birds.
Under EU legislation, eggs from birds which have been housed for more than 12 weeks cannot be marketed as free-range.
The Harrogate district and surrounding area is home to several large egg-producers, including Chippindale Foods at Flaxby, James Potter at Catton, and Ian Taylor Free Range Eggs at Burton Leonard.
Mr Taylor supplies local retailers with eggs from his own flock of 16,000 hens plus another 20,000 on contract from two other farms.
He said the new measures had had little effect on his business, but that the threat of bird flu was a worry.
“It’s having minimal impact, to be honest,” he said. “That said, if we were to get an outbreak within three kilometres of here, I don’t know what I’d be telling you. I’d be very concerned, that’s for sure, because by law I wouldn’t be able to move any eggs out of the area.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said from last Tuesday, the majority of producers in England would be able to let their birds outside again, providing they observe strict disease prevention measures.
Areas close to large bodies of water, where significant numbers of wild birds gather, are deemed higher risk, so housing or total netting will continue to be mandatory.
But Mr Taylor expressed concern about the apparently arbitrary way in which Defra divides the country into high- and low-risk areas.
“I think Defra just stick a pin in the map when they draw these boundaries. Everybody with a decent-sized poultry unit in this area is considered high-risk, and yet a few hundred yards down the road – where there aren’t any hens – it’s not.
“I think the real problems lie with the backyard hens – people who keep just a few in the back garden. The last two outbreaks, in Northumberland and Settle, were in backyard hens, and it’s because they’re not kept inside, so there’s nothing to stop them having contact with wildfowl, which are the carriers.”
Defra said about 75 per cent of poultry keepers will be unaffected, but where birds are housed rather than netted, eggs and some poultry will no longer be classed as free-range.
The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), which represents more than 95 per cent of UK free-range egg production, said that although some free-range hens will be allowed back outside this week, some farmers will choose to temporarily keep their hens housed to protect them from the continued risk of avian influenza.
It said all members’ free-range egg packs will temporarily carry stickers, informing consumers that the eggs have been laid by hens currently kept in barns, to create a level playing field for producers.
The BEIC’s chief executive, Mark Williams, said: “The need to change labelling of free-range egg packs after 12 weeks is an EU requirement. However, these are all still free-range hens but some are temporarily housed to protect them from bird flu.
“Free-range producers still incur the same costs for land and staff while birds are housed, and in many cases are facing increased costs for additional biosecurity.
“We need to avoid a potential ‘postcode lottery’ whereby individual farmers could be penalised if they have chosen to temporarily continue to keep their hens inside.
“Therefore all of our members, supported by retailers, have taken the decision to label all free-range eggs, to help protect the future of the British free range sector.”
He added: “Our research shows that consumers are supportive of farmers putting birds’ health first and 80 per cent are happy to continue to pay the same price, or more, for eggs from free-range flocks temporarily housed inside.”
Meanwhile, Mr Taylor said his hens had taken well to the indoor regime.
“They soon got into the routine,” he said. “We keep them occupied, and their housing is designed to be occupied for 18 hours a day in the winter months anyway, so there’s not that much difference.
“It’s well ventilated, with light, and they exhibit all their natural behaviours, so they’re fine, and the eggs are the same quality.”