Pressure and confusion builds over free range egg labelling

The industry is unsure what measures, if any, it will be able to take to keep the free range labels through the bird flu crisis ©iStock/caelmi

Poultry in Europe is being kept indoors to prevent the spread of bird flu, after 12 weeks all hens will no longer be free range; what, if anything, can the industry do to keep the free range status through the crisis?

Following outbreaks of bird flu in a string of EU countries at the end of 2016, housing orders have been set in place to restrict movement of poultry and contain the virus in almost all of Europe. 

In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued the housing order in anticipation, before outbreaks had occurred in Britain. Shortly after cases emerged in Wales and Northern England.

768 outbreaks of the H5N8 strand of avian influenza (AI) were reported in the EU between October and January. 


The fear that free range eggs in countries affected by the outbreak may have to be downgraded to barn eggs is causing serious concern to the industry.

Dutch MEPs submitted questions to the European Parliament asking for an extension on the EU’s 12 week deadline; this rule allows for veterinary emergency measures to keep free range laying chickens indoors for up to three months, after which they must be reclassified as barn chickens.

No answer has yet been given to the questions, but European agriculture minister Phil Hogan said he understood is was a difficult issue as the housing order is coming to an end in many countries, and released the following statement:

"There is no easy solution to this matter, given the need to maintain the integrity of labelling and information for consumers who are prepared to pay a premium of up to 20 or 30 per cent for these free range products in the confident knowledge that they paying for what they are getting. So it's an issue that requires further reflection. That reflection needs to consider all the possibilities available. We will be working with member states over the next couple of weeks to see if we can get a resolution to this important matter."

A meeting between Hogan and representatives of the European egg industry is scheduled for next Monday.

However, there is no clear expectation on the outcome, and different members of the industry have given totally different expectations on whether a short term solution or legal derogation will be given.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) said it is planning for the worst case scenario that the housing will have to be extended beyond 28 February. A spokesperson explained that a contingency plan would be to add stickers onto all free range egg cartons making the situation ‘completely transparent’ to consumers that the hens are currently being kept inside.

Amanda Cryer, director of BEIC, told us: “We are running out of time to suddenly switch to completely new packaging. We wouldn’t know how long it would last or if it would even be possible for packaging producers to accommodate this situation and then switch back at short notice. We will have to see what happens on Monday, but the stickers seem to be a perfect solution.”

However, the situation in Europe seems far less confident.

Clara Hagen, secretary general of the European Egg Processors Association (EEPA), told FoodNavigator: “Hogan doesn’t have any room to derogate on the labelling law. My understanding is that this is unlikely, although it is very much wanted. Next Monday we will meet with Hogan, and then we will see.”

Hagen said that if the is not derogated, all previously free range egg layers will have to switch to barn status and the industry will simply have to deal with the situation until it ends. 

Clarity on the situation and what solutions the industry will be able to adopt, if any, will be given next Monday. 

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