UK residents will no longer be able to buy free-range eggs in the supermarket from today due to a huge outbreak of bird flu that has required egg-laying hens to be kept indoors.
A spike in cases has caused free-range eggs to vanish from shelves, as farmers have been required to keep their hens indoors for the past 16 weeks under government advice intended to stop the spread of avian flu cases.
Before Christmas, the UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss instructed farmers to keep their birds housed inside following the “largest-ever outbreak of bird flu”, but now, after four months indoors, their eggs can no longer legally be branded as free-range.
Instead, from Monday 21 March free-range eggs will be rebranded in supermarkets as ‘barn eggs’ – the name given to eggs produced by birds that are permanently kept indoors.
Hens laying free-range eggs must, by law, have unlimited daytime access to open enclosures with at least 4 sq m space per bird.
In the barn system, by comparison, there can be as many as 9 hens housed indoors per square metre, whilst organic hens housed indoors are allowed a maximum of 6 in the same amount of space.
EU law permits free-range laying hens to be kept indoors for up to 16 weeks before their eggs must be renamed as barn eggs.
That time period has now passed and, with orders to keep birds indoors now being extended, the indoor confinement looks set to continue for some time still.
So in response, the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has decided to relabel all commercial boxes of free-range eggs – for now, at least – to help level the playing field for farmers, the majority of whom are still allowed to let their birds outside if they follow “strict disease prevention measures”, says DEFRA.
Prices are not affected, and farmers hope consumers will be supportive as they say the relabelling is just a technicality – adding that their hens are still free-range, just being temporarily housed inside.
Feature image – Pxhere