23 April 2018 | Online since 2003

23 January 2017

Dutch and Belgium representatives press for clarity on extension of housing order

Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said he would work to find a solution but said there was no easy solution

European Union leaders are being asked to take action to prevent free range egg producers from losing their free range status if they are forced to continue housing their birds against the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

In early December the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), along with the devolved governments of the United Kingdom, ordered that poultry should be housed to protect against the threat of H5N8. At that time there were no cases in the United Kingdom but there were numerous reports of cases across other European countries. The housing order was for 30 days.

Since then, cases of H5N8 have been found in United Kingdom - on two turkey farms in Lincolnshire and in backyard flocks in Wales and North Yorkshire, as well as in a number of wild birds around the country. Chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens subsequently extended the housing order until the end of February.

Concern is now growing amongst free range producers because this extension will take the housing order to the end of the 12-week period - imposed by the European Union - beyond which free range birds will lose their free range status unless they are allowed outdoors. Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) is calling for the 12-week cut-off to be extended. Farmers' leaders in other EU countries are pressing for the same extension, and the issue was raised by both Dutch and Belgian representatives at a meeting of the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council in January.

Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said he would work to find a solution but said there was no easy solution. "I appreciate that this is a difficult issue, particularly in member states in which the 12-week confinement period is coming to an end, after which eggs cannot be classified as free range," he said. "There is no easy solution to this matter, given the need to maintain the integrity of labelling and information for consumers who are prepared to pay a premium of up to 20 or 30 per cent for these free range products in the confident knowledge that they paying for what they are getting. So it's an issue that requires further reflection. That reflection needs to consider all the possibilities available. We will be working with member states over the next couple of weeks to see if we can get a resolution to this important matter."

Mark Williams said the position of the BEIC was clear. "BEIC is requesting that a derogation is provided to Commission Regulation (EC) No 589/2008, Annex II, point 1.a., to allow free range flocks that remain housed after March 1 in Great Britain under veterinary order to be able to maintain their free range marketing status. This would remain in place until such time as veterinary authorities determine that the disease situation allows for any housing restriction to be lifted - possibly in a further one to two months."

He said, "It is our view that we are in exceptional circumstances across the EU and this calls for exceptional measures to be put in place. The simple solution is for the EU Commission to allow the 12 weeks to be extended for a further one to two months to get past this time of heightened disease challenge."

Between October and January there were a total of 761 outbreaks of H5N8 in Europe - 51 per cent in poultry and the rest in wild birds. Some 1.6 million poultry were destroyed. As well as affecting 18 countries in Europe, H5N8 has also been found in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The BEIC chief also said that, in this country, Defra should look at lifting the housing order at the end of February whilst at the same time maintaining strict bio-security controls. "Whilst we would be guided by veterinary advice, in the face of potentially losing free range egg marketing status - which we cannot allow to happen - we believe that the AIPZ (avian influenza protection zone) must be lifted on February 28 across Great Britain, but with the maintenance of high levels of enhanced bio-security. We are working with Defra to determine what this would be in high risk areas." It was the AIPZ order that included the instruction to house poultry.

Based on figures produced by Ranger magazine, losses for the UK free range egg industry could run into millions of pounds if its eggs have to be downgraded to barn eggs. Ranger costings show that producers are already losing as much as £4.08 per bird on an average egg price of 88 pence per dozen. If the eggs had to be sold as barn and the price was consequently cut to 70 pence per dozen, the loss per bird would be £8.58. On a national free range flock of 18 million birds, the additional loss to the free range egg sector could amount to as much as £81 million.

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), said the association's members were extremely worried about the prospect of birds losing their free range status. "The cost to free range producers of having their eggs downgraded to barn doesn't bear thinking about," he said. "There will need to be many discussions over the next few weeks. I know how busy Defra will be but we will need to have an answer before the end of February."

The Ranger understands that farmers' leaders in the Netherlands are also raising the issue. We were told that the Dutch industry was likely to press its Government to ask the European Union for some sort of derogation, given the severity of the H5N8 outbreaks currently affecting Europe. Mark Williams said he was working through EUWEP, the egg industry's representative body in Europe and with other EU organisations and member states to press for an extension to the 12 weeks.

Defra would not indicate to the Ranger what was likely to happen beyond February 28. A spokesman said, “There is no impact on the free range status of birds or eggs as result of the prevention zone currently in place across the UK.

“Protecting against the threat of avian flu is a priority and it is essential all bird keepers maintain high bio-security standards.

“Appropriate measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of domestic birds becoming infected and they are kept under review following the best scientific evidence.”

We pressed Defra on whether it was possible that the Government could ask the EU to extend the 12-week period to enable producers to maintain their free range status. The spokesman said, "We are keeping all measures under review and following the best scientific evidence."

Leading retailers are also concerned about the looming crisis in free range eggs. If the whole of the UK flock has its status downgraded after February 28, supermarkets will be left with no source of supplies at a time when free range eggs are more popular than ever with consumers. Individual retailers did not want to comment at the moment, although they made it clear that they were in discussions with the BEIC, the British Poultry Council, the National Farmers Union and Defra.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents the British retail industry, is also involved in talks. A BRC spokesman told the Ranger, “As producers are required by law to bring the birds indoors to prevent the spread of the virus, the free range status of eggs is maintained and they will be marketed and labelled as free range.

“We are working with Defra to find a pragmatic solution that mitigates any negative impact on free range farmers should the enforced housing period extend beyond the 28 February, when the derogation from free range regulation ends.”

Mark Williams said that there would be implications in-store even if the European Union agreed to extend the 12-week cut-off period. Mark said that consumers would need to be told via point-of-sale material what was happening. There would need to be an explanation of why layers were still being housed.
"Clearly, the current timeline to February 28 does not allow sufficient time for new packaging to be rolled out across the retail or all the food products containing eggs. It will be impossible to accurately label food products, which contain eggs from flocks that have been temporarily housed due to the time lag. This is why BEIC is proposing, if birds were to continue to be housed after February 28, the continuing use of existing free range egg packaging/food product packaging, combined with clear information to consumers in the form of store notices or shelf labels.

"Any in-store information would show a web address to give further information to consumers about why the birds are housed etc. This approach would also enable a more structured return to normal once restrictions are lifted, thereby minimising expensive wastage. The above proposal would necessitate the support of enforcers - trading standards departments, retailers and others in order to ensure that this current unprecedented situation can be successfully addressed with minimum disruption to the supply of high quality British free range eggs.

"We have informed Defra and the devolved administrations that we will work with them in a joint approach to the European Commission to seek the above derogation to this EU regulation," said Mark.

Robert Gooch said that the decision to extend the housing order until the end of February had taken the industry by surprise. We had been asking for a 14-day or 30-day extension so that we had some leeway before we had birds losing their free range status," he said. Robert said that an extension until the end of February had not been officially discussed with anyone else, as far as he knew.

The Ranger asked OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) director general Monique Eloit about the issue. She said that political decisions about rules for free range poultry ordered to be housed were not a matter for her organisation, but she said, "Many countries are developing free range farms, not only for ducks but also for hens. Therefore they have access to outdoors. Therefore that means that, for the farmer, the management is always more difficult to manage. It is always more difficult to manage disease when animals are outside. They have potential contact with wild birds. It is always very difficult to keep the area clean, not only for AI but also for many diseases. We have to find the right balance between AI concerns and consumer expectations," she said.

Defra said that the 12-week period during which birds could be housed and still be considered free range applied to the time of slaughter or laying of egg, not the time of sale. Any birds slaughtered or eggs laid within the 12-week period could still be sold as free range in Great Britain after February 28, it said.
Defra said that the housing order was imposed under Article 6 (4) of the Avian Influenza and Influenza of Avian Origin in Mammals (England) (No.2) Order 2006. It is an offence to not comply with the Order under section 73 of the Animal Health Act 1981. Poultry keepers who breach the order could face an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

A spokesman said a breach of the housing restriction was solely an offence under section 73 of the Animal Health Act 1981. It would not affect the marketing of the eggs, he said.


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