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.
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.
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.
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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.
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”.
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.”