Bird flu precautions still threaten free-range status

The 40% of egg production in Ireland which is free range remains under threat of losing this status, due to the prolonged housing of poultry for protection from bird flu.

Since Christmas, poultry farmers have been required to confine flocks in secure buildings to avoid bird flu infection from wild birds.

The 5% of poultry meat production which is free range is also under threat, because EU regulations dictate that eggs and poultry meat can be marketed as free range for no more than 12 weeks of restrictions imposed on human or animal health grounds.

As the situation stands, they cannot be marketed as free range after the 12-week compulsory housing period in Ireland expires on March 17, unless the restriction is lifted in the meantime.

However, there are no plans to lift the poultry confinement requirement, because the risk of introduction of HPAI H5N8 bird flu by wild birds into poultry flocks remains high.

There have been nine confirmed cases in wild birds in Ireland since December 30. 

These occurred mainly in migratory swans and ducks. However, on February 10, cases were confirmed in a mute swan and a grey heron, both resident Irish species.

For organic production, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has said the poultry must have access to the open air, but regulations recognise this may not be possible during health restriction periods, when operators must ensure the needs of the birds are met in other ways, until full open-air access can be restored.

“The regulations thus provide a reasonable degree of flexibility as far as organic production is concerned. and my Department is looking at providing additional guidance in this area,” said the Minister.

He said the European Commission was asked by member states on January 23 to consider extending the 12-week derogation during which products from poultry subject to a confinement/housing order can be marketed as free range.

However, the Commission did not agree to table a proposal to extend the derogation.

Key stakeholders representing free range producers, packers, processors and retailers recently attended a meeting with Department of Agriculture officials to consider practical solutions to labelling of product from free range poultry after March 17 if confinement/housing restrictions remain in place.

In contrast, the Scottish Government has announced it will maintain confinement/housing restrictions until the end of April, but will allow producers who take additional biosecurity measures to protect their flocks the option of giving their birds access to the outdoors, from February 28.


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