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Fate of Europe's free-range eggs uncertain

Outbreaks of avian influenza across Europe led to many flocks being kept indoors. Several European egg organisations have now called upon the European Commission to look urgently at the current rules on how long poultry flocks might be kept indoors before losing their free-range status.

The H5N8 strain of bird flu, which swept across Europe and spread due to the migration of wild birds, led to national authorities requiring poultry flocks to be kept indoors to avoid infection. While this has proven to be a successful strategy, questions are now arising about the consequences for free-range egg producers.

Complying with hen housing requirements

Over 80% of free-range laying hens in the EU are now being housed indoors to protect them, complying with the housing orders issued by national authorities. The present rules require the eggs from laying flocks kept indoors beyond a 12-week threshold to be downgraded from free-range to barn.

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Many parts of the EU will reach this threshold in the next few days. There is now a real possibility that, because of this situation, very few free-range eggs will be available to consumers in the EU.

Request to maintain free-range status

The European Commission has been called on to issue a derogation to allow free-range flocks that remain housed after 12 weeks because of the present bird flu problem, to be able to maintain their free-range status for a slightly longer period, i.e. what is required by veterinary authorities. Losing this status will hit farmers hard who have invested heavily in free-range facilities.

It could also cause real disruption in the supply chain, since the repackaging and relabelling which this change will require, not just for fresh eggs, but for all products ranging from sandwiches to pasta using free-range eggs, is simply not possible given the timescales.

“A simple solution is needed”

Mark Williams, secretary-general of EUWEP (EU 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.”

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa and Cogeca, went on to say, “The presence of the virus in the EU is clearly outside of farmers’ control, as it is due to the migration of wild birds. 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. Furthermore, we call on the European Commission to work with us and our partners on longer term solutions for the sectors”.

“Downgrading eggs is disproportionate”

Supporting the poultry producers, 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.

If these sectors are forced by national veterinary authorities to keep birds indoors, it would be appropriate that European authorities should not insist on a rule which will risk putting some of our valued partners’ very existence at risk. We support the sectors in calling for a common sense approach to this issue and maintaining consumer confidence.”


  • m sunderland

    Why do you need the E.U. to tell you to do the obvious?. These people are not Farmers, just get together and tell them this what were going to do anyway you only get what you want by challenging the bureaucrats to think of of something better.

  • Richard magee

    I think the simplest thing to do is don't worry about the processed products and just put a flash label on packs of eggs explaining to due to welfare issues and disease pressure free range poultry as to be housed indoors

  • ln napolitano

    like it or not ignoring the science and producing free range eggs and chicken is completely dumb. it goes beyond animal welfare , it puts human life in danger

  • Peter Bozzo

    There is NO simple solution for free range production!
    We are decades possibly centuries away from controlling viruses if ever!
    The very reason we put chickens in cages and indoors was to keep the hens and people alive! We are turning our back on history and what we already know.
    Persisting with commercial free range production is a path to the death of many people and hens, How can this be moral!
    If scientist and people think they can outsmart nature and viruses with today's understanding and knowledge of viruses, we are dreaming!

  • Paul Iji

    Finally, the chickens are going back in-doors! I don't think the best alternative to cages is free range. To me, the best alternative, even for the birds, is open barn or aviary system. Chickens are much like us, apart from the feathers. I don't know how many of us would like to go back to living outside in Europe (cold) or in Australia in summer (extreme heat). But we are dancing to bureaucracy, which is dancing to emotional reactionaries.

  • Acheneje EGENA

    Indoors it is then, safer chickens, safer products and safer humans!

  • david bollich

    oh what a web we weave when first we practice to 'believe'.

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