Bird flu puts an end to free range eggs

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The avian influenza crisis in Europe has forced producers to house birds indoors for more than three months - meaning the loss of free range status.

Outbreaks of bird flu throughout Europe in 2016 meant avian flu prevention zones were established to contain spread of the flu.

Most producers of free range eggs - a label earned through strict regulations including constant access to outdoor areas – can no longer maintain the status for their eggs.

According to EU law, free range producers are given a 12 week window in case of disease outbreaks after which the label must be dropped. The window in Britain closed yesterday.

Ben Pike, a spokesperson for the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) told FoodNavigator:

“All producers have been affected by the housing order which has brought about a great deal of uncertainty and concern, but not all will have been affected in the same way. Some have reported egg numbers dropping whilst others have reported a small rise. Some farmers have said the birds have eaten more since being housed which has a cost.

“Nearly all farms will have had additional labour requirements to ensure welfare standards are maintained, which also has a cost. From the members we have spoken to, the overall feeling has been one of uncertainty - the higher risk areas, the risk assessments and losing free range status have been key areas of concern. But producers are resilient and have risen to the challenge.”

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) said that downgrading the status of British free range eggs was not practical since packaging manufacturers have not had time to plan for such adjustments, and it is still unclear for how long the measures will last.

Instead, stickers have been added to all free range egg boxes warning consumers that the eggs are ‘laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare’.

Kevin Coles, a spokesperson for the BEIC said "The 12 week rule is an arbitrary date that is clearly not fit for purpose and we will be working with our European partners to develop more appropriate measures in the future. Under the circumstances we believe that stickers are the best way to inform consumers in the UK."

This tactic has not been employed in the EU however, where the Netherlands and Germany were forced to officially downgrade all free range eggs to barn status.

Dutch politicians had previously lobbied the EU to derogate from the 12 week rule given the special circumstances, but their efforts were unsuccessful.   

Britain's department for environmental, food and rural affairs (Dfrepa) has said it will look at lifting the prevention zones by the end of April. 

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