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On November 29th 2021, the UK government imposed a lockdown on free-range hens to protect flocks from catching the latest strain of avian influenza.
Egg marketing is very strict in the UK, and wording around ‘free-range’ is policed heavily to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare. However, due to this lockdown, no hens were allowed outside so a 16-week grace period for continued labelling of eggs as ‘free-range’ was granted by the UK egg marketing board. This was implemented in order to avoid substantial packaging costs during the flu season.
This 16-week period passed on 21st March 2022, therefore from this point onwards, all free-range eggs produced are labelled as barn eggs. As the majority of fine food retailers champion high quality, high welfare British produce, this loss of ‘free-range’ eggs will likely have a significant impact.
How farmers are mitigating the effects of bird flu
Ben Mosey, owner of Yolk Farm told Speciality Food how his team have tried to mitigate the situation: “Animal welfare is at the top of our agenda at Yolk Farm. Quality, integrity and transparency of farming practices are the reasons our customers visit our award-winning Farm Shop and the world’s first egg restaurant on a free-range egg farm.
“We were disappointed to see bird flu cases rise again in late 2021 but we had planned for this eventuality earlier in the year. We decided to place a smaller number of hens in our barn to allow more space and help with the comfort of our flock. To produce the perfect egg, we need our hens in tip-top shape so the extra space we have given them along with increased environmental enrichment such as fruit and vegetable rations, straw & hay bales we feel they are comfortable inside.”
Suffolk-based egg producer Daniel Brown, who keeps more than 40,000 free-range hens, told The Guardian his birds had coped well indoors so far. “We’ve given them extra things in the shed like hay and grit to give them things to peck at and keep them amused”, he commented.
What can indie retailers do to maintain trade?
Now that fine food retailers can no longer sell free-range eggs, they should be having conversations with customers about the situation so they can make the right choice and continue to purchase high-quality eggs from their trusted retailers.
Ben explained: “Independent food retailers such as farm shops and delis are now well and truly at the centre stage for being the custodians of our food and its stories in the UK. The farm shops and delis now have the responsibility to educate consumers on relevant and topical situations in UK agriculture and food production.
“This imposed reduction of egg status has been put in place for the benefit of millions of domesticated birds and many more millions of wild birds migrating to and from the UK.
“We believe consumers understand this but are not always aware of why these changes have been put into place. We need to engage in honest conversations so we can all work together to maintain the consumer confidence and extremely high standards in British farming.
“We encourage the general public to visit and build relationships with their local independent food retailers as food and farming is a large part of our culture in the UK.”
Is this the end of free-range eggs?
While the length of time hens are kept indoors for is worrying for some, with no tangible end in sight, industry experts are positive that this is not the end of free-range. This is because avian flu is seasonal, and outbreaks drop off as warmer weather sets in.
Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council, said he was confident that hens would be allowed outside again soon. He commented: “The greatest risk comes when the migratory birds are carrying it around, which is why we have these outbreaks at the same time every year between Autumn and Spring.”
“We are not sure when but our hens will be let out in the next few weeks once the weather improves and thus return to producing free-range eggs”, Ben added.
With spring and summer on the horizon, hens should be able to roam outside again soon and fine food retailers will be able to proudly stock free-range eggs for their customers.