‘The birds are all back indoors’: Could this be the end of free-range eggs in the UK? | Bird flu

In a matter of weeks – or even days – the UK free range chicken sector is set to close. All farms that provided outdoor access for their laying hens or chickens will be required to keep them indoors.

While the headlines are that bird flu is back after a wave of outbreaks over the past three weeks and fears of festive goose shortages, the reality is that it never really went away.

In the past, cases have dropped during the summer months; this year they continued, with 3.5 million birds slaughtered on UK farms. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds are also believed to have died from the disease.

Experts suspect bird flu is now endemic in wild birds, creating a year-round risk of infection and has a greater ability to persist in the environment.

Bird flu can be spread through infected bodily fluids and feces, or through contaminated food, bedding and water – and even vehicles, clothing and shoes. Some experts have also pointed to the movement of birds or equipment between poultry farms as a source of infection.

Any outbreak is devastating to a poultry farmer, with the forced culling of any remaining birds in the flock, followed by cleanup costs and legally imposed delays in restocking.

But for free-range egg and meat producers — who sell their products on the assumption that their birds have access to the outdoors for at least part of their lives — a mandatory housing order is potentially terminal.

A tractor drives past a sign that reads 'End of Animal Disease Control Zone'.
A bird flu prevention zone in Norfolk, which is one of three counties currently under a compulsory housing order. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The latest UK-wide housing order for anyone keeping birds – whether backyard or commercial keepers – was only lifted in May after it was agreed and put in place by the Chief Veterinarians of Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland last November. This year, a number of regional housing orders were issued in October.

“The product we’re selling is our animals going out,” said Somerset farmer Oliver White, who raises free-range chickens, turkeys and geese. “We market them as pastures, so we wouldn’t want to dilute our philosophy or our history [by raising them indoors].”

White’s farm is outside the compulsory housing order which currently only applies to Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. He says he is in a race against time – fearing both a bird flu outbreak and the planned UK-wide housing order – to get his last birds ready for slaughter for the festive market .

“I just can’t wait to put the birds in the freezer. If we had a case of bird flu, it would wipe out our Christmas stock and therefore our Christmas income. Once they’re in the freezer, they’re safe,” he said.

Suffolk egg farmer Daniel Brown, already under a regional housing order, is not so lucky. He raises 44,000 free-range hens, laying between 35,000 and 40,000 eggs each day which are sold to a wholesaler before moving on to retailers. “The birds are all back inside,” he said.

According to industry regulations, housing conditions for free-range hens are no different from regulations for hens raised in free-range systems. [where birds have no access to the outdoors]with a maximum stocking density of nine hens for every square meter of floor space.

Brown says the public probably wouldn’t mind his birds being indoors during the colder winter months and that he brought them extra enrichment indoors, including balls of hay and gravel. But he is worried about a housing order extending through May, as was the case this year, or longer.

“I don’t know what that means for the company in the long term. Everyone thought this flu would go away in the summer, but it’s still here. I keep free-range chickens because I like to keep them outside. I don’t want to lock them inside.

The government’s chief veterinarian, Christine Middlemiss, said this week she was concerned about whether some accommodation in the free-range livestock sector was suitable for use for longer periods. Animal welfare campaigners said it was ‘untenable to keep the birds alive in their night quarters’ with less opportunity to move around and escape outside if frightened.

After two decades of growth, the free-ranging herd in the UK has become the largest in Europe. Free-range eggs have more than doubled their retail market share since 2004, accounting for 74% of all eggs sold by retailers today.

But with a second straight year of mandatory housing orders, White says he fears free-roaming birds over winter may no longer be feasible.

Farmer Ollie White walks through a field behind a flock of free-roaming geese.
Farm2Fork Farmer Ollie White with a flock of free-roaming geese. White says he’s in a race against time to protect his Christmas stock. Photograph: Millie Pilkington/Courtesy of Farm2Fork

“Supermarkets have pushed this assumption that everyone should be able to get everything all year round. And that also applies to free-range chicken and eggs. But it has created a greater risk of outbreaks of bird flu and c That’s why we need a housing order,” he said.

Officially, farmers can continue to tag their free-range eggs for 16 weeks after the introduction of a mandatory housing order. But after that date – as happened in March this year – the eggs must be labeled as barn eggs.

In the Netherlands, which has also been hit hard by bird flu outbreaks, retailers have pledged to continue paying egg producers the surcharge for free-range eggs despite the birds being housed.

There has not yet been an explicit commitment from UK retailers to pay the free-range surcharge, but Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium said retailers “know the importance of having a sustainable free range supply and will continue to support their farmers to get them through this time.”

Egg farmers say retailers have already taken too much value from the market and could therefore risk their supplies with a price cut. “I don’t think they’ll be able to get cheaper eggs if they force more UK producers out because of low margins,” Brown said.

“They would be crazy to price eggs from free-range flocks that have been incarcerated in barns at the price of barn eggs,” said David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London. “Egg producers will bear all the costs of free-range rearing, whether the birds are ‘incoming or outgoing’ and are in a sufficiently precarious financial position, as they are anyway due to inflationary pressures related to egg intake.”

Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council, said he expected retailers to “continue to support the sector as they have done in the past”.

The industry is also hoping the UK will follow the EU’s proposed rule change to allow eggs to be tagged free range even if the birds are permanently indoors as long as a housing order remains in place. square.

Defra has so far declined to make the commitment and said it “recognizes the need to maintain consumer confidence in the outdoor brand over the long term”.

The other hope for next year is a vaccine, which Robert Gooch, CEO of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, said would “solve the problem overnight”. Trials are already underway with ducks, chickens and turkeys respectively in France, the Netherlands and Italy.

The United States and France, in particular, are said to be keen to secure an international agreement on the use of vaccines and to prevent poultry-related trade embargoes on countries that approve their use.

A yellow sign in the shape of a chicken with a sticker in French that translates to 'Outdoors is dead'.
A sign at a protest against intensive poultry farming in Toulouse, France, in December 2021 reads ‘outside is dead’. Photography: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

A near-record number of chickens and turkeys in the US have died in the past year from bird flu, while France has been the worst-hit country in the EU with more than 1,300 outbreaks over the past year, compared to 190 homes in the UK. . A total of 47.7 million birds were culled in the EU and a further 47 million in the US.

Vaccination would prevent birds from contracting the disease and dying, while reducing the secretion and presence of virus in the environment, said Professor Munir Iqbal, head of the bird flu group at the Royal Veterinary College. However, in some cases these birds could still be contagious to other birds, he added.

Iqbal said a global meeting to discuss the wider use of bird flu vaccines that do not block trade in poultry products (eggs and meat) was due to take place in Paris next week, hosted by the World Organization for Animal Health.

You can send us your stories and thoughts at animalsfarmed@theguardian.com

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