free range chickens

Another outbreak of bird flu has been confirmed in the UK, adding to mounting fears free-range eggs could soon disappear from supermarkets.

Authorities this week confirmed the H5N8 strain had been found on three farms in Wyre, Lancashire, and embarked on a cull of over 60,000 birds including pheasants, partridges and ducks.

The Lancashire outbreak was the latest to hit the UK since the start of December, and follows the discovery of bird flu on three poultry farms in Lincolnshire and in backyard flocks in North Yorkshire and Wales.

The ongoing spread of the disease has raised fears the compulsory housing order in place until 28 February could be extended, putting the free-range status of British eggs in jeopardy. Under EU rules, only poultry products housed for fewer than 12 weeks can be marketed as free-range, and the 12-week mark will be reached at the end of this month.

“We don’t know yet what the government vets will decide. We’re still hoping that hens may be allowed out again after the end of February,” British Egg Industry Council chief executive Mark Williams told The Grocer.

In the meantime, the industry has called on EU regulators to extend the 12-week free-range status of poultry impacted by the compulsory housing order. “Representatives of the European poultry industry and retailers met the European Commission on Monday to reinforce the need for a sensible solution,” said Williams.

UK farming unions are also holding “urgent” talks with MEPs, warning that if an extension is not granted, UK free-range producers could go out of business.

If the housing order is extended, free-range producers plan to sell their eggs in existing packs, clearly marked to show the hens are being kept inside on government advice, so consumers can still distinguish them from barn eggs.