Free-range egg rules could be relaxed in the UK in response to the EU’s willingness to overhaul regulations after the largest ever bird flu outbreak.
It is understood that ministers are considering changing the rules which mean that eggs laid by hens kept in pens for months on end can be classed as free range.
Currently, eggs cannot be classified as free range if the birds have been indoors for more than 16 weeks. Farmers enjoy this grace period in both the EU and the UK, which means that eggs can still be classified as free range if the government’s housing order for the birds is in place for up to 16 weeks.
Then, labels should be added to the packaging to show that those labels are now classified as barn eggs.
Sources in Whitehall told The Daily Telegraph that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is considering changing regulations in order to keep farmers competitive with Europe.
In 2022, the UK saw the largest outbreak of bird flu and experts have warned that infections could spike further during the winter. The outbreak has killed 97 million birds globally, and 3.8 million in the UK, according to government data in November.
In October, poultry producers from as far north as Norway’s Svalbard islands to southern Portugal collectively reported nearly 2,500 outbreaks of the disease since last year.
Should the proposed changes to EU regulations be adopted, farmers in the bloc would be able to continue to label eggs as free-range during an avian flu outbreak even if the chickens were kept indoors for more than 16 weeks.
The European Commission put forward a proposal in September, which stated that “where temporary restrictions have been imposed on the basis of EU legislation, eggs can be marketed as ‘free range’ despite this restriction”.
The proposal, which is awaiting approval by the European Parliament, means eggs can be classified as free-range even if hens are forced to spend months indoors due to government rulings.
In September, UK egg producers said it was essential the government followed suit now to avoid British suppliers being undercut by EU imports.
Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Confederation, said at the time: “It is absolutely essential that the UK cooperates with the EU, otherwise retailers will be importing eggs labeled as free range from EU sheltered chickens in the event of an epidemic.” Artificial intelligence when there is no pandemic in the UK market.”
In past years, outbreaks of avian influenza decreased as temperatures rose and migration of wild birds ended in the fall and winter seasons. But the outbreak has persisted across the UK and elsewhere in Europe for much longer this year.
Last year, nearly two-thirds of the total 11.3 billion eggs produced in the UK were free range. About 70% of eggs sold in British supermarkets are free-range, according to market research firm Kantar, nearly double the level in 2014.
Defra has been contacted for comment.