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Producers have warned the egg sector is being held back over often unfounded sustainability concerns

The scaling up of egg production is being hampered by increasingly onerous planning conditions, producers have warned.

Allegations the sector causes water pollution have meant many businesses do not get approvals for the construction of new sheds – holding back industry modernisation.

According to British Egg Industry Council chair Mark Williams, the “finger has been unfairly pointed at the egg industry” regarding the pollution of rivers such as the Wye, making expansion “a lot more difficult”.

“People who may object to an application for a free-range egg unit somewhere else in the country are now quoting the allegations. What we’re seeing is that some planning authorities are delaying because of that,” he explained.

Supermarket commitments for all eggs to be cage-free by 2025 have driven the need for construction, he added, as cage egg producers have had to swap to other production methods.

“The capital cost of me doing that is considerable,” Williams said, especially considering the inflationary pressures on construction material costs and high interest rates, which have made the process more expensive. Investment like this was vital if the sector was going to get beyond the high peaks and low troughs it was currently facing and return to a “more even keel”, he suggested.

The ideal construction of a free range poultry shed was in the middle of a field so birds can get out both sides, he added. However, some local authorities now required them to be put along a hedgerow or in one corner to place them out of sight – often making developments problematic. 

The BEIC is arranging a summit involving local planning authorities and government representatives alongside the poultry sector to discuss issues around the difficulty in building new poultry sheds and to find solutions to issue.

“It’s always a balance between doing the aesthetics and what planning authorities have tried to ensure visually, but at the same time there’s food security [to consider] and British consumers want safe eggs,” he added.

For those already operating in free range the situation was less of a challenge, suggested Robert Gooch, CEO of British Free Range Egg Producers Association, who instead said producers were still grappling with the after effects of the egg supply crisis – caused by low supermarket returns to producers – which has led to a slump in production over the past year.

“Planning permission is difficult and always has been but that’s not been the main problem,” he explained. “The [bigger] problem is the difficulty of the industry in turning a super tanker around again and getting it back to full production, because everyone turned the taps off when the retailers refused to pay a profitable price last year.”

“All [the retailers] needed to do is paid the right prices that covered the cost of production and not drop prices like they did last year, and we would have plenty of production as we had before”, said Gooch, adding that there is already “plenty of production potential and capability out there”.

He added that while some farmers were walking away from the sector their facilities were still being used as they were renting out sheds to new players in the space, meaning that utilisation of existing capacity was as important as new builds.

Other production challenges include avian flu, which last year had a significant impact on flock size. This year both Gooch and Williams said so far case numbers were lower than they were this time last year.