UK supermarket shoppers on the hunt for free-range eggs will be out of luck from Monday as chickens have had to be kept indoors due to fears of avian flu outbreaks.
The UK was struck by what government officials described as the 'largest-ever outbreak of avian flu' over the winter months, meaning chickens which were usually free to wander outside have had to be kept indoors since November to reduce the risks of outbreaks.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs allowed a 16-week grace period to continue defining eggs from such chicken as 'free-range', but as the period has now come to an end the eggs can no longer be described as free-range and instead will be labelled 'barn eggs'; the name given to eggs produced by hens permanently housed indoors.
The risk of wild birds carrying #BirdFlu remains VERY HIGH & so you must continue to keep your birds housed. The risk of your birds getting #AvianInfluenza is high if biosecurity is poor. Keep up to date by visiting: https://t.co/y2cgmybEjQ #Chickens #Poultry @BHWTOfficial pic.twitter.com/pZh3cfAssI— APHA (@APHAgovuk) March 18, 2022
New avian flu outbreaks in the past week have prompted the decision to keep the housing order in place despite farmers' hopes the government would lift the restrictions, with the rules on labelling the eggs applied to all birds, whether produced by one hen in a garden or a numerous birds involved in a large-scale poultry business.
In a statement cited by The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "The 16-week grace period we allowed for free-range eggs has now been exceeded, and eggs must now be marketed as ‘barn eggs’. We have worked closely with the sector and retailers to implement these changes as smoothly as possible."
Egg producer Daniel Brown, who typically has 40,000 free-range hens wandering his land, told The Guardian his birds have so far coped well indoors as he gave them 'extra things in the shed like hay and grit to give them things to peck at and keep them amused'.
Brown expressed hopes the housing order will be lifted soon as avian flu outbreaks usually drop off as temperatures begin to rise.
He explained: "A chicken won’t be bothered about not going outside in December and January, but when it’s nice in May they’ll want to be out late into the evening."
The British Retail Consortium has assured that 'when the current measures are lifted, eggs will go back to being free-range'.
Supermarkets are set to provide signs to explain the change to customers.
Aimee Mahony, chief poultry adviser of the National Farmers’ Union, said birds will be able to go outside again 'once the risk levels have reduced and the housing measures have been lifted by Defra.'
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