Free range eggs no longer available in supermarkets as UK battles bird flu outbreak

Derbyshire farms close due to avian flu outbreak

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To be classified as free-range, egg-laying chickens in UK farms must have been housed with access to four square metres of space per individual and been given continuous daytime access to open-air runs. In the event that the Government issues an order requiring poultry to be housed for their own health, farmers can continue to label their eggs as being free range for up to 16 weeks of shelter. However, the present outbreak of bird flu — the largest the country has ever faced — has now meant that this grace period has been exceeded and that the eggs must be sold in supermarkets under the label “barn eggs” instead.

Bird flu — or avian influenza — is a viral infection similar to the strains that infect humans, pigs, dogs and horses. While it mainly affects birds, it can spread to humans and other mammals.

Symptoms of bird flu include a swollen head; closed or watery eyes; lethargy; apparent loss of coordination; drooping or dragging of the wings, neck or legs; loss of appetite; respiratory problems; fever; trembling; and discoloured or watery droppings.

The virus spreads from bird to bird mainly through either direct contact or through contaminated bodily fluids or faecal matters.

It can also be spread by means of contaminated feed or water and via dirty clothing, footwear or vehicles.

The present housing order was issued by the Government on November 29, 2021, following the introduction of an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across Britain on November 3.

Requirements initially brought into effect under the AIPZ included the separation of ducks and geese from other poultry species and measures to prevent the potential transfer of the virus between premises via, for example, the cleansing and disinfection of equipment.

To date, the Government has reported the detection of 86 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza across England — with the most recent having been identified yesterday, in a commercial poultry farm near Woodbridge in East Suffolk.

Protection and surveillance zones have been established around the property, while all birds at the premises will be humanely culled.

A Defra spokesperson told “We are experiencing our largest ever outbreak of avian flu and housing measures remain in force to protect poultry and other birds from this highly infectious and unpleasant disease.

“We continue to provide support for the poultry sector throughout this challenging time.

“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.“

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Given the Government’s warnings that there was “still a high level of risk” of birds catching the flu, farmers remain following “stringent biosecurity measures”, National Farmers’ Union chief poultry adviser Aimee Mahony told BBC News.

Alongside this, she explained, poultry farmers are also taking steps to adapt hen houses so that they are more comfortable for their birds during the present crisis.

She added: “This is an incredibly difficult time for all bird owners and vigilance remains vital.”

The housing order applies not only to commercial poultry farmers, but to all bird keepers in the UK — whether they keep their animals as pets or in a small backyard flock.

According to the RSPCA, around 55 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK are normally sourced from free-range chickens, with free-range and barn eggs being more popular with consumers than those that come from battery hens.

However, the charity has also noted that many of the eggs used as ingredients in other products like cakes, mayonnaise and sandwiches still come from caged chickens.

Battery cages give each bird less space in which to live than a single sheet of A4 paper and only provide limited access to nesting, perching and scratching facilities, the RSPCA said.

Free-range eggs will only return to UK supermarket shelves when hens are permitted to go outside again, although it remains unclear when exactly this might happen.

According to Defra, the AIPZ requirements — including the housing measures — will remain in effect “until further notice”.

The situation, they added, is continuing to be monitored, and decisions on when to lift or amend the parameters of the protection zone will be “based on risk assessments containing the latest scientific and ornithological evidence and veterinary advice.”

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