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This is due to the 16-week grace period authorised in October which allowed the eggs of free-range hens kept inside to prevent the spread of the avian flu epidemic to continue to be labelled as such.
However, now, all eggs will need to be labelled ‘barn-reared’. In recognition of the current increased costs facing the industry coupled with the impacts of the flu itself, Defra will allow the same packaging concessions that were granted last year.
This means where other options are not feasible, such as over-stickering or marketing eggs in “barn-reared” egg boxes, the industry will be allowed the use of direct print to pack or an affixed label on free-range boxes to communicate to consumers that the eggs have come from hens that are now barn reared.
A welcome concession
Speaking to Speciality Food, Emma Mosey, owner of Yolk Farm and council member of the Farm Retail Association (FRA), explained, “It is welcomed by the FRA that this new concession will allow retailers to use the same system as last year, which might help to reduce costs. It is good that the new labelling offers transparency to the customer about how the hens laying the eggs they are purchasing are reared.
“Although this is necessary, for a free-range egg farmer who is housing their birds due to government order, this can devalue the eggs and mean that they receive less money for them, due to circumstances beyond their control. In an industry already under huge cost pressures and threat from avian flu, it is another barrier which might result in more farms going out of business or leaving the industry.”
In fact, according to Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, surging costs for feed and energy had driven farmers out of the industry, leading to lower production. There have also been accusations of some retailers refusing to pay what farmers argue is a fair price for eggs.
“We now have fewer hens in the country and fewer farmers producing the eggs,” Robert explained. “In May last year, I warned retailers there would be a shortage unless price increases filtered down to farmers. They ignored my warnings and what I predicted happened.”
A challenging situation
As farmers battle what is continuing to be a challenging situation in 2023, industry bodies are hoping that the housing measures will be lifted soon.
James Mottershead, poultry board chair at the National Farmers Union (NFU), explained, “The British poultry sector has experienced an unprecedented year with record levels of avian influenza (AI), which has devastated many family farm businesses across the country.
“Poultry farmers are doing all they can to protect their flocks by following stringent biosecurity measures and adding additional enrichments to the bird’s environment while they are housed, such as pecking blocks and dust baths.
“Shoppers may start to notice different labels on egg packs as well as point-of-sale information explaining that the eggs have been laid by hens temporarily housed to protect their health and welfare. Once the AI risk levels have reduced and the housing measures have been lifted by Defra, birds will be able to go outside again and eggs can be labelled as free range.”
According to Emma, “The government needs to clearly communicate the new rules to retailers in a timely manner to allow them to abide by them in the most cost-effective way. They can also continue to support farmers through this difficult period of cost increases and avian flu to ensure that free-range production continues in this country in the future.”