“Low welfare” and “lower quality” eggs are flooding into the UK from abroad, The Guardian warned on Tuesday, with new government data showing “staggering” increases in the amount of eggs imported into the country.

According to statistics from the Animal & Plant Health Agency, the number of eggs imported from Poland jumped by more than 2,000% from 2021 to 2023, from just 46 consignments to 1,095.

Meanwhile, imports of eggs from Italy also rocketed, The Guardian reported – with the number of consignments sent to the UK rising by over 300% from 2022 to 2023, from 72 to 279.

These revelations were about as popular as a fox in a hen house with beleaguered British egg producers, with the British Egg Industry Council describing the stats as disappointing, “particularly at a time when British producers have been struggling due to poor returns”.

And what made them even more concerning was the fact that Polish eggs in particular have been in the spotlight in recent months over several outbreaks of salmonella linked to its egg sector – a bacteria largely eradicated from the UK egg sector over the past 30 years due to the British Lion scheme’s drive to improve production standards.

Most Polish eggs entering the UK are sourced from caged systems and largely go into manufacturing and foodservice, says British Free Range Egg Producers Association CEO Robert Gooch, but much is also sold via corner shops and smaller (non-British Lion) retailers.

The increase in Polish egg imports

So the motives for such a big increase in Polish imports are difficult to isolate, given how the end use of so much of these eggs is so disparate.

But with government data showing UK egg production down 8% in 2022 and by 10% this year due to the crisis that enveloped the sector over low returns, one can safely surmise the increase in Polish egg imports points to the need to find supply from elsewhere.

And it’s a supply that will have been significantly cheaper than British eggs too, given the inflation seen across the egg sector since the start of the egg supply crisis in the UK.

NIQ data for The Grocer’s Top Products Survey in 2022 showed average egg prices rose by 6.1% last year. That figure has since tripled in 2023 on the back of a series of price hikes across the mults in response to calls for greater returns from producers, according to new NIQ data, which will be unveiled in The Grocer’s Top Products issue in December.

The position is far clearer when it comes to the motives behind the increase in Italian egg imports, with the same NIQ data showing Italian barn egg brand Atlante – sold (to much criticism) in Sainsbury’s for much of the egg crisis – racking up more than £5.5m in sales over the past year to make it the egg category’s 13th largest brand.

So what does this all mean for a British egg sector that is now, finally starting to recover?

Major supermarkets quite rightly faced significant criticism over their slowness in reacting to the plight of egg producers over low returns.

Government has broken its border controls target three times

But the ire of the sector is now firmly directed at the government, and the fear is, in the wake of a slew of imbalanced post-Brexit trade deals, that this rise in egg imports could increase even further over the coming weeks and months – undercutting and further damaging UK producers.

BFREPA’s Gooch points to how the government has “broken three times its own target for creating border controls which are still not in place”, which means we have little protection when it comes to an increase in imports produced under standards that would not be permitted in the UK.

And he adds it has also “broken its own commitment to ensure that our welfare standards are reflected in trade deals such as the CPTPP”, which does not restrict battery egg imports from, for example, the world’s largest battery egg producer (per head of population) Mexico.

Defra announced plans to launch a review of supply chain fairness in the egg category in May, but amid ongoing turmoil in government, that review is yet to kick off.

And in the meantime, the sector is facing the threat of further cheap imports from across the world, produced to lower standards than are permitted in the UK.

As Gooch puts it, the sector’s best defence may ironically now be the retailers themselves and their (largely) UK-focused sourcing models. But if those commitments were to change and supply were ever liberalised in the future, the crisis the sector has just faced over the past year-and-a-half could look like a walk in the park.