This week, egg farmers and packers across the EU were hoping for an extension to EU rules to allow eggs still be classed as free-range , despite poultry being confined indoors by bird flu housing orders.
To control the spread of bird flu, most European countries have ordered poultry to be kept indoors. And EU regulations state that free range poultry kept indoors under Government controls can keep their free-range status for no more than 12 weeks.
To protect consumer confidence, EU rules require free range poultry after the 12-week period to be re-labelled, automatically downgraded to “barn” poultry, with packaging changed to reflect the new status.
But egg and poultry farmers, processors, and retailers have united to call for a “common-sense” EU approach to the status of free range eggs and poultry meat.
With over 80% of free-range laying hens in the EU being housed indoors to protect them from bird flu, in compliance with housing orders issued by national authorities, less and less free range eggs will be available to consumers in the EU unless the European Commission issues a derogation to allow free range flocks maintain their status.
Disruption in the supply chain has already started in the Netherlands and Germany, which housed their birds earlier than other EU countries.
Their 12-week period has already ended, forcing the egg and poultrymeat industries to make decisions on repackaging and relabelling, not just for fresh eggs, but for all products using free range eggs, ranging from sandwiches to pasta.
Mark Williams, Secretary-General of the EUWEP association for egg packers, egg traders and egg processors said: “We are facing exceptional circumstances across the EU and this calls for exceptional measures to be taken at this time.
“The simple solution is for the European Commission to allow the 12 weeks to be extended across the EU for a short period, to get past this time of heightened disease challenge.
“We now need the Commission to act quickly in the interest of consumers and farmers, whilst ensuring total transparency and trust in the free range egg sector.”
Representing farmer organisations, Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-General of Copa and Cogeca, said: “In view of the exceptional circumstances, we cannot accept that the farmer who has invested heavily in free range facilities would have to bear the cost of reclassification of his eggs.
“It is very important to provide exceptional support to those producers that will suffer income losses due to mandatory public health measures.”
Christian Verschueren, Director-General of EuroCommerce, on behalf of retailers, said: “We stand side-by-side with the farmers and the egg and poultry meat sectors on this issue.
“We of course want consumers to be confident that they are getting the product that they are paying for, but applying rapidly the “12-week-in-house” threshold as a trigger to downgrade free range eggs is disproportionate in these exceptional circumstances.”
The 12-week housing period affecting free-range status ends this week in Denmark, Hungary, and France.
It will end next week in Sweden, and the following week in Finland.
Free-range status could end in England, Scotland, and Wales on February 28, if the EU does not change its rules defining what constitutes free-range eggs.
Ireland north and south could be left as the only region with free range egg from February 28 to March 17, because they were last to enforce poultry housing as a bird flu precaution, in Christmas week.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has confirmed that his requirement to keep birds confined will remain in place until further notice, but will be kept under review.
He revealed that since December, there have been five confirmed cases of bird flue in wild birds in Ireland.
“It is now likely to be well established in the wild bird population throughout the country,” he said.
As a result, the December 23 regulation requiring Irish flock keepers to confine all poultry and captive birds in a secure building away from wild birds remains in place.
Mr Creed has also confirmed that vaccination is one of the tools that can be used to control bird flu, but it is not currently being considered.