New rules that mean free-range eggs have to be marketed as ‘barn eggs’ represent the latest blow in a now “dire” situation for beleaguered free-range egg producers, the sector’s trade body has warned.
Mandatory bird housing measures through an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone were imposed by Defra in Great Britain on 3 November, in response to what the British poultry Council described at the time as “the worst bird flu outbreak we’ve seen”.
A 16-week grace period allowing eggs from housed birds to continue to be marketed as free-range expired today (21 March). This means eggs will either have to carry stickers denoting their barn-based production or entirely new packaging.
The measures, which will be in place “until further notice”, according to Defra, put additional pressure on producers who were now facing significant financial difficulties, said British Free Range Egg Producers Association CEO Robert Gooch.
And while retailers were being “supportive, with no indication of the measures leading to any change in pricing”, Gooch warned free-range producers – like many other parts of the fresh foods supply chain – were experiencing crippling increases in the cost of production. These rises were now affecting volumes and could even put some out of business, he added.
Retailers had increased their prices for free-range eggs by between 13% and 16% over the past year, while the price per dozen from packers to producers had only risen by between 1% and 2% over the same period, Gooch said.
At the same time, these producers – most of whom were not on feed price-tracker contracts – were seeing significant increases in feed (up 15% in February) and energy (up 40%), which were now expected to climb further in light of the war in Ukraine, he warned.
Such a situation “did not bode well” for some financially struggling producers, Gooch said, and this was now translating into some deciding to leave the sector, with others deciding to pull back on production where possible.
And as a result, free-range hen numbers had fallen by 2% since the beginning of the year, and by 6% for organic.
“Things are really dire for producers at the moment, we’re just hoping we can get some recognition from retailers sooner rather than later before we have a huge tranche of business failures,” Gooch warned.
Free-range eggs made up about 64% of the total egg market last year [Defra/British Egg Industry Council], with enriched cages making up just under 36% and barn representing just 1.8% of the total market. Cages are due to be phased out of the production system by the middle of the decade.
The temporary move to barn-labelled eggs was expected to last for at least “a couple of weeks”, suggested one industry source.
“Marking free-range packs and eggs temporarily as barn is not only the most practical solution,” said BEIC CEO Mark Williams, “but it also means consumers can continue to buy eggs from free-range hens, albeit temporarily housed, while farmers can ensure the hens are safe and well.”
The measures follow a similar move in March 2017, with free-range eggs labelled as barn until May 2017.