Since a fresh outbreak of avian influenza swept through Europe in 2016, forcing huge numbers of poultry farms to close and even destroy their stock, free range egg status has had to be terminated in many parts of the EU.
According to EU policy, egg producers have a 12-week time allowance in case of emergencies such as bird flu in which to house their flocks indoors, thus breaking the technical free range standard.
The allowance period has now passed, and free range chickens can no longer qualify as free range.
Appeals were made to the European commission to pass a waiver on the 12-week limit given the circumstances, commissioner Hogan responded by saying it would be ‘illegal’ to do so.
Bird flu an 'ever evolving' virus
Speaking in reaction to the decision, Ben Pike of the British Free Range Egg Association (BFREPA) told us:
“He is absolutely right that at the moment it would be illegal to label eggs as free range from hens that were housed for more than 12 weeks. From BFREPAs point of view we would say that our members can’t ever be left in the situation we’ve been in for the past year ever again. It is likely that bird flu will come back to Britain again one day, we don’t know – its an ever evolving virus. We would like EU marketing regulations to be amended so that producers aren’t disadvantaged by a situation that is effectively out of their control. They can’t stop infected birds flying into the country.
"BFREPA will continue to lobby at a national and international level to alter the current legislation."
Britain's egg producers found a way around the ruling however by continuing to sell eggs in free range boxes and adding stickers to each carton warning consumers of the situation.
However, Pike said the sticker solution is less than ideal - "It slightly got producers out of jail, since if the rules were enforced fully many of the producers couldn't have survived. We were reliant however on retailers honouring the prices promised for free range eggs, but if the situation continued for a long time would they honour that? We don't know. We hope the sticker situation can end with the crisis at the end of April, and we can really focus on what we do as a sector going forward to avoid being put again in a situation which is out of our control."