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Will the free-range egg industry crack under the strain of avian flu?

Will the food industry using free-range eggs crack under the strain of EU marketing regulations? Pic: ©iStock/renzzo

The global spread of the highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) has set the cat among the pigeons in the free-range egg industry.

From farmer, to food producer, to retailer, to consumer – there is no sector along the supply chain that is not feeling the adverse effects of the rampage of HPAI.

Many baked products may have to reassess “free-range” egg claims.

Birds will soon have been locked up indoors beyond the EU’s mandated 12-week period as egg producers look to protect their animals.

According to the veterinary industry, animals that have been indoors for more than 12 weeks can be significantly smaller and less healthy than those allowed to roam free.

In England, birds have been housed since December 7 and the 12-week housing period comes to an end on February 28.

In Ireland’s case, the 12-week period expires on March 17.

The ravages of AI

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the first report of HPAI was reported in October last year. Since then, there have been over 700 outbreaks in commercial and backyard poultry across the EU.

And it’s spreading at an alarming rate.

As well as affecting 18 countries in Europe, the H5N8 strain has now been found in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

New outbreaks are being reported daily, including nine cases in Great Britain (GB) since the beginning of the year.

Over three million birds from more than 300 French farms have been slaughtered. France’s agriculture ministry has now also ordered 600,000 ducks in a key poultry-producing region to be slaughtered to try to stem the flow.

While Public Health England (PHE) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have stated the risk to public health is low, over 160 people have died from the highly virile H7N9 strain in China since the beginning of the year, according to health authorities.

The situation is still “preventable and controllable”, but the National Health and Family Planning Commission has warned that if it isn’t tightly controlled, the virus could spread further.

The WHO issued a statement to say that, while there are no signs of sustained human-to-human transmission in bird flu cases this year, it will remain “vigilant”.

The great fall?

If birds aren’t allowed out after the 12-week cut-off period, under EU regulations, eggs can no longer be marketed as ‘free-range’.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) said eggs will be downgraded to “barn produced”, which are usually 20% cheaper.

British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) has estimated this will affect about 150 of its members, collectively producing about two million eggs per day.

According to Mark William, chief executive of BEIC, if Defra’s chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens, proposes continued housing – and this is a possibility for another one or two months – pack labels will note eggs are laid by birds currently under housing restrictions.

The Co-op UK has been selling only free-range eggs since 2008, as well as using it as an ingredient for its own brand cakes and sandwiches.

A spokesperson for Co-op UK told BakeryandSnacks it will be adding new stickers to all its eggs sold instore.

“The health of our hens is the priority and under government orders they are temporarily living indoors to stop them getting bird flu.

“Our shell egg supplies will largely remain free-range but to support British farmers, we will sticker all of our egg packs. We don’t want to disadvantage those farmers who will have to keep their birds indoors because they are in a high risk area which has housing restrictions in place,” he told us.

According to the company, this means that any food products made with free-range eggs could contain eggs produced from hens that are being temporarily housed inside.

“Therefore, where packaging lists free-range eggs as an ingredient, they are not currently free-range.

“We want to be very clear and up front with our customers about the situation affecting the UK free-range egg industry, so we are putting lots of additional information into the stores with notices and signage.”

Pieminister, who claim to be the only UK pie company to use 100% free range eggs in their products, has been freezing liquid eggs for some time.

“The only egg we use at Pieminister is as an ingredient for our pie glaze. We always use 100% free-range British eggs and have been using frozen liquid egg for some time for the glaze,” Romany Simon, head of press, told us.

“We have bought enough stock produced prior to the February 28 deadline to cover us for approximately six months.

“This means we will not have to re-label or add a sticker on our retail boxes to say the hens have had to be kept indoors for more than 12 weeks,” she said, adding that “if, in six months’ time, the ban is not lifted, then we will, of course, re-label or add stickers to the boxes as required. 

While many retailers will pass the extra costs on to the consumer, one of Germany‘s largest supermarket chains, Rewe says it will bear the cost “as a sign of solidarity with the affected farmers”.

Egg-citing confusion?

But, might any labels added by supermarkets simply highlight that the eggs themselves are at risk?

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said re-labelling would result in mass confusion and disappointment among shoppers.

He believes “if producers have to revert back to barn egg labels, this could lead to consumers becoming very confused.

“There has been a huge demand for free-range eggs over the past five years but this is very worrying for farmers as the cost of producing them is high and yet they may not be able to charge more,” he said.

Let’s hope this is not a case of not being able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It’s no yoke

According to the National Farmers Union (NFU), the demand for free-range eggs has increased significantly in the past 25 years.

Today, around 56% of eggs sold in British supermarkets are free-range, whereas just 2% come from the barn system, said the NFU.

In the EU, consumers paid around €1.20 ($1.26) for 10 barn eggs, and €1.83 ($1.92) for 10 free-range eggs, reported Germany’s poultry industry organization Marktinfo Eier und Gefluegel.

To survive the loss of the free-range egg claim over the short-term, the industry is planning to put stickers on free-range egg packs to ensure full transparency to retain consumer loyalty.

Recently, farmers in Holland lost an appeal against the EU to extend the 12-week rule. They are now in the process of re-labelling their free-range eggs as barn-raised.

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