British egg producers are warning of a potential shortage, as farmers leave the industry or reduce the size of their flocks in the face of rising costs and uncertainty caused by the spread of bird flu.
A third of farmers surveyed in recent days by the British Trade Authority for Free Egg Producers (BFREPA) report that they have reduced the number of chickens in their flocks because egg prices mean they are unable to cover their costs.
Meanwhile, a quarter of the 165 farmers who responded to BFREPA said they had halted production either temporarily or permanently.
Farmers are grappling with rising costs, including chicken feed prices, as well as rising energy and transportation bills.
The association represents around 550 egg companies, which represent about 70% of the UK’s free range and organic egg production, supplying the country’s largest retailers.
Several of those surveyed who reduced their flocks said they were “seriously considering not restocking,” while another farmer added, “trying to cut costs to survive.”
In March, the egg industry called on major UK retailers to raise the price of a dozen eggs by 40p to prevent the collapse of hundreds of egg producers.
The average price of eggs has since risen by about 45p, BFREPA said, but only a quarter of that — between 9p and 10p — has been passed on to farmers, which hasn’t been enough to cover their higher costs.
The British Egg Industry Council, the British egg industry body, said cost pressures had led to a temporary reduction in the size of the British herd, but expected the numbers to rise again as cost pressures eased.
She said the pressure on the egg supply was caused by several factors: “These factors include the loss of chickens from bird flu; the high cost of production, which means producers are struggling to break even; a decrease in the number of hens for colonies as retailers move towards empty cages; and strong demand from consumers”.
The council added that the industry is working closely with retailers to ensure that producers are able to meet consumer demand.
The Guardian understands that supermarkets do not face an immediate shortage of eggs.
Andrew Obe, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers are managing their own supply chains and continue to “work hard to ensure minimal impact on customers despite ongoing supply chain stresses”.
Cost pressures come as producers grapple with the largest outbreak of bird flu in the UK, raising concerns about reduced production. Keeping chickens indoors also results in additional costs for farmers.
The outbreak, which has been going on for more than a year, has accelerated in recent weeks, with nearly 100 confirmed cases of H5N1 bird flu since the beginning of October.
The disease is common among wild birds, officials said, but is fatal to captive birds, including chickens and turkeys. Any outbreak of the disease is also devastating to farmers as it leads to the culling of any birds remaining on the site.
In an effort to curb the spread of bird flu, domestic birds and other captive birds in England are required, by law, to remain indoors for an indefinite period.
An extended housing order may also result in the renaming of free range eggs for sale.
UK law states that eggs can still be marketed as a free domain for the first 16 weeks of a housing application; If the chickens still have to be kept indoors after that time, the eggs will need to be renamed “barn eggs”.