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Free range eggs 'will run out by March' thanks to bird flu outbreak

Free range eggs - HANNAH MCKAY
Free range eggs - HANNAH MCKAY

Free range eggs will run out by March because of the bird flu outbreak, an MP has warned.

The poultry industry in Britain is in the grip of the worst avian influenza on record, and the impact could paralyse the production line until Christmas 2023.

In response, the Government ordered all poultry and captive birds in England and Wales to be kept indoors as of November 7, but Scottish ministers have yet to follow suit.

There is a grace period of 16 weeks by which eggs produced by free range hens can still be marked as such even if they are kept inside.

But this will expire on February 27, meaning free range egg sellers would have to mark their produce up as barn eggs, as happened last year.

Cat Smith, a Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, told a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall on Wednesday: "It's likely that we will breach that 16-week grace period at the moment because of the state of the influenza outbreak and I'm very aware a lot of producers are now going to have additional costs in terms of rebranding their products which will no longer be free range at the end of this process."

The outbreak started in October 2021, and since then there have been 257 confirmed cases of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1.

But recently the situation has gravely worsened, with 137 of those cases coming since October 1.

British farmers also risk being left behind by their European counterparts who may be given longer free range grace period.

Dr Neil Hudson, a Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, was a vet during the foot and mouth crisis in the early 2000s.

He said: "I saw things then that I never want to witness again in my lifetime and I think people on the frontline are seeing similar things.

"At what point will the Government act to say we are in exceptional market conditions?

"There are discussions at EU level that actually if the state vets say they need to be kept indoors then the free range status can be carried on longer.

"So I think the UK needs to be cognizant of that and make preparations to make sure our farmers are on a level playing field."

The egg situation has resulted in some supermarkets rationing boxes, but Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Mark Spencer MP, said this was mainly due to other impacts.

He said: "We've seen a tightening in the eggs sector - but the UK supply chain is resilient.

"We have 38million laying hens across the country and avian flu is not having an impact on the overall supply with only 2 percent of the national flock having died or been culled due to avian flu.

"The disruption to the supply of eggs we've seen recently is mainly due to commercial decisions businesses are taking as a result of rising costs of feed and energy over the past year mainly caused by Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine."

'We face an existential threat'

The picture, however, is rather more bleak for other species.

Sir John Whittingdale, a Conservative MP for Maldon, tabled the debate, and said: "We face an existential threat, and we need a clear plan," he said.

Tens of thousands of birds are dying or being culled every day, and Sir John said, guillemots, kittiwakes and barnacle geese "are dying at such numbers it's actually putting at risk those species in this country".

Sixty-five species have now tested positive.

Sir John also said that people who house their own hens should be held to similar scrutiny as big businesses.

He said: "They are equally at risk and equally likely to spread and they need to be more visible to the regulators."

MPs also called for the compensation structure to be reformed and for farmers to be able to restock sooner than they are currently allowed - 12 months after the outbreak.

Vaccines 'way out of crisis'

Richard Foord MP, the Liberal Democrat representative for Tiverton and Honiton, called for this timeframe to be halved, as in its current guise it would  see "shortages lasting well over a year, especially in seasonal Christmas turkey market".

Farmers only get compensation for birds after they are killed.

But Sir John pointed out the issue with that by highlighting the plight of Kelly Turkeys - a brand endorsed by Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith.

He said when the outbreak hit the farm near Chelmsford, the owners called the government vets on Thursday.

By the time they arrived on Monday, 9,800 of their flock of 10,000 were dead - meaning they were only eligible to claim compensation for 200 birds.

Mr Spencer insisted the way out of the crisis was vaccinations, and said the country can draw upon the Covid pandemic to "use that expertise to try to find a vaccine that would prevent this internationally".