Why are there no free range eggs in UK supermarkets?

Advertisement

A severe outbreak of bird flu has resulted in birds being kept indoors across the UK under a Covid-style lockdown since November 2021

UK free-range eggs to be removed from menus until bird flu outbreak subsides (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Advertisement

While the Omicron-Covid variant has been high on the news agenda for most of the past few months, the UK has also been battling a major bird flu pandemic.

While this has only infected one human, the disease has been disastrous for egg and poultry farmers.

Advertisement

Register to our NationalWorld Today Newsletter

According to the government, more than 2.3 million birds have had to be killed while hundreds of millions of chickens, turkeys and ducks have had to be kept indoors since November 2021 to stop the spread of bird flu.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Advertisement
Free range chickens cannot be marketed as “free range chickens” if they have been kept indoors for more than 16 consecutive weeks (Image: Getty Images)

Why is bird flu a problem?

Every winter, the UK faces the threat of bird flu because the UK and Ireland are close to an important migration route for wild birds from Scandinavia and northern Russia, which often transmit the disease.

Advertisement

Sometimes the avian flu that develops among these birds and is introduced into the UK is highly pathogenic – meaning it is more likely to kill its host.

When this happens, the UK’s senior veterinary officials typically take action – such as an avian flu safe zone – designed to reduce the likelihood of avian influenza getting into commercial eggs and poultry (key food sources in the UK).

Advertisement
Wild birds often carry and spread bird flu in the UK (Image: Getty Images)

However, if the virus is found to be spreading widely, stricter measures such as housing restrictions (essentially bird bans, making it illegal for bird keepers or farmers to let their birds out of their barns) will need to be put in place.

Such measures had to be put in place at the end of November 2021, when the UK was trying to contain what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) called the country’s “biggest” outbreak of avian influenza ever.

Advertisement

Why aren’t there free-range eggs in the supermarket?

Avian keeping restrictions are bad news for all bird keepers, as they require flocks to be kept in barns for long periods of time – a practice that is detrimental to the health and welfare of the birds.

Advertisement

But it’s particularly bad for free-range egg farmers, who have to let their birds outside in order for their eggs to be classified as “free-range.”

With the housing restrictions for avian flu lasting more than 16 consecutive weeks, free range producers can no longer legally label their eggs as ‘free range’.

Advertisement

As a result, as of March 21, they must instead be labeled “barn eggs” — a lower welfare classification.

Retailers have communicated this change to consumers.

Advertisement

However, according to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BREPA), there have been warnings of a “mass exodus” of free range egg producers from the industry.

Free range eggs are an important food source in the UK (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

The trade association says “hundreds of millions” of higher welfare eggs could disappear from the shelves as farmers are unable to cope with increases in production costs, including feed and energy costs.

Advertisement

BFREPA says it has no support from supermarkets and revealed it has asked them to increase the price of free-range eggs by at least 40p per dozen, or 80p if they’re organic.

In response, the British Retail Consortium, which represents most of the UK’s major retailers, said: “Supermarkets source the majority of their groceries from the UK and know they have to pay farmers a sustainable price, but are frustrated by the magnitude of the extra costs they are passing on limited consumers in this very difficult market.”

Advertisement

When will free range eggs be back in supermarkets?

At the moment it is unclear when the bird flu pandemic will subside enough for farmers to let their chickens outside again.

Advertisement

New cases of bird flu are still being recorded but appear to be declining, with one new case recorded in farmed poultry and seven in wild birds since April 11th.

But we might not have to wait too long for free-range eggs to make a comeback.

Advertisement

Wild migratory birds that brought the virus to the UK will leave the country in March and April – reducing “infection pressure” according to DEFRA – while the greater amount of sunshine and heat Britain gets in spring and summer “inactivates the virus ” will. .

A message from the editor:

Advertisement

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Learn more about who is who in the team, and ours editorial values. We want to build a community among our readers, so please keep following us Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going. You can also register with us Email Newsletter and get a curated selection of our best books delivered to your inbox every day.

Advertisement