bird flu

The UK is the grip of “the worst bird flu outbreak we’ve seen”, according to British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths.

Griffiths’ assessment came on the heels of the government’s chief vet Christine Middlemiss telling the BBC on Wednesday that the country was seeing a “phenomenal level” of avian influenza.

Middlemiss subsequently told the BBC’s Today Programme this morning that she was “very concerned” about this year’s outbreak, which had been driven by high levels of infection in migratory birds.

Some 500,000 affected birds had already been culled, with cases at 40 premises now confirmed across the UK, she added.

Given the worsening conditions, the poultry sector is now scrambling to prevent the outbreak from getting worse. “Our focus is all around the stamping out of the virus and curbing the spread of it,” said Griffiths.

“Housing birds is not something free range egg producers want to do, but they realise that it’s the only way to protect hen welfare,” added Robert Gooch, CEO of the British Free Range Eggs Producers Association.

Keepers have been required by law since 29 November “to keep their birds indoors and to follow strict biosecurity measures in order to limit the spread of and eradicate the disease”. 

According to Defra’s latest advisory notice, published on Thursday, they must also “continue taking extra precautions to keep their flocks safe”, such as “regularly cleaning and disinfecting equipment, clothing and vehicles when entering or exiting sites and limiting access to non-essential workers or visitors”.

While the sector has yet to feel the commercial impact of the crisis, according to Griffiths, that could soon change as the year draws to a close. “Bird flu has added to what have been really challenging times in terms of keeping food moving, with Brexit, Covid and labour shortages,” he said.

Last month, before restrictions were imposed, BFEPRA warned that low egg retail prices, combined with soaring input and production costs, were likely to force hard-pressed farmers to leave the sector.

“A price rise is urgently needed to cover huge increases in the cost of feed, energy, transport, and labour which have been creeping up over the past 12 months and show no sign of abating,” the trade body said.

It cited ONS data that showed a dozen free range eggs cost £3.09 on average in July 2014, versus an average of £2.14 in September 2021.

Free range producers could be among the hardest hit if the housing order was maintained into the new year.

“Free range birds can be housed for up to four months without their eggs losing free range status. We have time, and hope that it will be safe to lift the housing order before the end of that period,” said Gooch.

Producers were forced to cede free range status in early 2017 after a previous bird flu outbreak prompted the enforcing of similar curbs to this latest round.

The rules at the time stipulated that if birds were housed for more than 12 weeks, the ‘free range’ label could no longer be used on related products.