Happy Egg hen

Eggs have been a big success story over the past few years.

Retail sales were up almost 5% in 2016, according to the British Egg Industry Council, as the sector continued to shrug off the bad publicity of the early 1990s.

And at the forefront of this growth have been free-range eggs, with an extra 340 million sold last year (up 11% year on year). The sector has been further bolstered by commitments from all the major retailers to phase out caged hen eggs by 2025.

But free-range eggs and poultry products could soon be a rare sight on supermarket shelves – thousands of products face being relabelled at the end of February due to EU restrictions on what exactly defines free-range.

Under EU rules, only poultry products from birds housed for fewer than 12 weeks can be marketed as free-range. But following the outbreak of avian flu in the UK last December, a national protection zone was put in place which is limiting bird movement until 28 February and requiring bird owners to keep their animals indoors.

It’s clearly a sensible decision by Defra, which must be applauded for acting quickly in the face of the latest bird flu outbreaks. But given that cases of the H5N8 strain keep breaking out across the country – this week 10,000 birds were culled in Lancashire – there’s now a chance these housing restrictions will stay in place well past February. And this could put the whole free-range sector at risk, as brands won’t be able to call their products free-range anymore.

The NFU has warned something desperately needs to be done, and soon. Otherwise thousands of products, including mayonnaise, eggs and poultrymeat (not to mention cakes and anything else that uses free-range eggs as an ingredient) must be relabelled as ‘barn’.

Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? Nor is it what consumers expect to see on shelves, given so many retailers have made high-profile commitments to free-range in recent times. So there’s every reason to take sensible, pragmatic action quickly. Failure to tackle the issue might prove hugely damaging for a category that has come so far in turning its fortunes around.