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British Egg Industry Council concerned to protect hens

27/02/2017

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), which represents more than 95% of UK free range egg production, has advised that although some free range hens will be allowed back outside this week, some free range farmers will choose to temporarily keep their hens housed, to protect them from the continued  risk of avian influenza.

A particularly virulent strain of avian influenza has been circulating in wild birds across the UK and Europe for several months and Government restrictions in place since December have required all commercial poultry farmers to house free range birds, as part of the UK-wide Avian Influenza Prevention Zone. 

Defra has advised that all areas of England should still be considered at high risk from avian influenza, but that from 28 February free range egg producers in some areas of England can let their birds outside again, with additional biosecurity measures in place, after a self-assessment.  In Scotland and Wales a similar risk assessment needs to be carried out.

However, the continuing outbreaks of avian influenza across the UK and Europe mean that egg producers and their veterinary advisors remain concerned about the AI risk, and some producers are choosing to keep their hens housed.

BEIC Chief Executive Mark Williams comments: “The UK has the largest free range flock in Europe and we are proud of the high standards of British free range farms.  Under normal circumstances we encourage birds to range outside freely, by planting trees and providing other shelter.  The need to protect birds from avian influenza has to be our top priority.”

Labelling of egg packs

Under EU legislation, eggs from free range hens which are required to be housed to protect animal health can continue to be marketed as free range for up to 12 weeks.  After that date, eggs from hens temporarily housed need to be labelled accordingly. 

All BEIC members’ free range egg packs will temporarily carry stickers from 1 March 2017, informing consumers that the eggs have been laid by hens currently kept in barns.   There will also be signs near where eggs are sold highlighting this and a website has been set up – www.freerangeinfo.com .

Mark Williams says: “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.” 

“Our research shows that consumers are supportive of farmers putting birds’ health first and 80% are happy to continue to pay the same price, or more, for eggs from free range flocks temporarily housed inside.”

Notes to editors

  • While inside, birds are free to roam around the hen house and have nesting boxes, perching areas and scratching areas.  They have continuous access to feed and water. All free range birds go inside their houses at night anyway.  To help the birds adapt to a new routine, egg producers are spending time with them and ensuring they have some additional activities, for example hanging items, providing straw bales, and other toys such as footballs and plastic bottles for them to play with, to ensure that their welfare is not affected while they adapt.
  • Defra requires free range producers in ‘Higher Risk Areas’ in England wanting to let their hens outside from 1 March to cover the entire range area with netting - impossible to implement for commercial flocks, due to the size of the area that the hens have to range.  Approximately 2.4 million hens – around 20% of free range hens in England - are estimated to be in the ‘Higher Risk Areas’ and it is not expected that any of these hens will be able to go outside this week.
  • Producers not in ‘Higher Risk Areas’ in England are able to make individual decisions to let birds outside again but are also required to provide additional biosecurity measures, designed to minimise contact between poultry and wild birds/waterfowl.  If the range area is close to open water, that part of the ranging area has to be restricted, and farmers need to avoid standing water on the range area so ponds have to be filled in or fenced off and covered by netting, to minimise the risk of contact with waterfowl.  
  • In Scotland and Wales producers are able to make individual decisions as to whether they should let their birds outside or not, based on self-assessment.  They will still need to comply with strict biosecurity.
  • The additional biosecurity measures required by Defra for producers wishing to let their birds outside again this week are impractical on many farms. For a typical free range flock of 16,000 birds, the range area is around 80,000 square metres – the size of eight full-size football pitches.   BEIC believes that, during a period of heightened disease risk, more pragmatic measures should be put in place - for example to allow farmers to let birds out onto a more limited ranging area, which could be better protected, for a short period while the risk of avian flu is heightened.
  • The Government is due to review the measures at the end of April and egg producers hope that the risk of avian influenza will have reduced sufficiently by then for all free range hens to be allowed outside.
  • The AI virus has affected both wild and farmed birds, including several commercial and backyard poultry flocks, in the UK this year.  Thousands of birds have died after contracting the virus. 
  • Public Health England (PHE) advises that the threat to human health from this virus remains very low and the Food Standards Agency is clear that bird flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.