In 2022, the UK has experienced its largest outbreak of bird flu, and experts have warned that infections could rise even higher over the upcoming winter of 2022–23. The outbreak has so far led to the death of over 97 million birds globally (3.8 million in the UK), with significant consequences for agriculture and the environment.
In response, the UK government has imposed mandatory housing for all poultry, amended its culling compensation scheme and relaxed the sale regulations of defrosted poultry. (As first reported on this blog 28 Oct Food and Agri Update Friday 28 October - Mills & Reeve (mills-reeve.com))
Mandatory housing means that all bird keepers must house their birds indoors and implement strict biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the threat of avian influenza, regardless of whatever type or size.
The new housing measures build on the strengthened biosecurity measures that were brought in as part of the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) in October 2022. The AIPZ means that all bird keepers need to take extra precautions, such as restricting access for non-essential people on site, ensuring workers change clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures and cleaning and disinfecting vehicles regularly to limit the risk of the disease spreading.
Under the new plans, the Government will alter the existing bird flu compensation scheme allowing compensation to be paid to farmers from the outset of planned culling rather than at the end.
Defra will relax regulations on defrosted poultry to allow turkey, goose and duck producers to slaughter their flocks early so they can be frozen, before being defrosted and sold as chilled in the run-up to Christmas. In consultation with the Food Standards Agency, Defra said the temporary easement to marketing rules in England would “give farmers certainty over business planning”. Owners of flocks threatened by bird flu will therefore have the option of the early slaughtering and freezing of birds, which will then be permitted to be defrosted and sold to consumers between 28 November and 31 December.FSA advises consumers that some chilled poultry products on sale will have been previously frozen and defrosted to maintain stock levels this Christmas | Food Standards Agency
The knock on effect of bird flu is similarly affecting the supply of eggs. However, this is combining with the increased cost of energy, logistics and packaging to reduce the number of available eggs as producers delay restocking as retailers reportedly do not pass on price rises to suppliers. According to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), a third of farmers have reduced hen numbers due to cost pressures and a quarter have stopped production either temporarily or permanently. This adds to the ongoing restrictions due to bird flu.
Retailers have warned consumers there may be some shortages of eggs. Asda Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Lidl had been limiting the number of eggs customers can buy due to supply chain issues. Lidl had put in place a three egg box per customer rule.
The price of eggs has increased significantly. ‘The Grocer’ recently launched a new Key Value Items (KVI) tracker to monitor prices and promotions on some of the most popular grocery products – and it’s the price of eggs that is rising fastest across the major multiples, with five of the leading grocery retailers increasing prices on the staple.
In July, The British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) had called on supermarkets and egg buyers to ensure that the price rises in shops are reflected in the money paid to farmers.
Data seen by BFREPA showed shoppers are paying 20p more for a dozen free range eggs, but farmers are only receiving an extra 4p.
There will likely be a further restriction on free range eggs after the compulsory housing order has been in place for 16 weeks.
A prolonged housing order would mean products such as free-range eggs would eventually need special dispensation to continue to be sold as free-range. Last winter’s bird flu outbreak ultimately led producers and retailers to have to place stickers on packs and on supermarket shelves to state they the birds had laid eggs while housed indoors.
The situation currently is that eggs may still be called 'free range' for up to 16 weeks if chickens are forced to be kept inside to reduce the risk of outbreaks of bird flu. The EU Commission is proposing new rules whereby farmers in the EU would no longer have to drop the free-range label on their eggs if there was an extended compulsory housing order in place. World Egg Day, Free Range Eggs and Bird Flu - Mills & Reeve (mills-reeve.com)
A draft proposal from the commission, which would need to be approved by the European parliament: “Where temporary restrictions have been imposed on the basis of [European] Union legislation, eggs may be marketed as ‘free range’ notwithstanding that restriction.”
It is now essential for egg producers in the UK that we follow this EU approach to opening up 'free range' for the duration of mandatory housing to avoid British egg suppliers being disadvantaged and to support their businesses.
Also, increased pressure is likely to be applied to retailers to support British farming and the supply chains that underline UK food security for egg and poultry farmers and political pressure is also likely. This will also be significant for a number of fresh produce producers and will be closely monitored.
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