18 July 2018 | Online since 2003

9 January 2018

EU egg marketing regulation change takes effect

Changes to avian influenza housing rules for free range birds have now come into force in the European Union.

Last year when highly pathogenic H5N8 struck across Europe, including the United Kingdom, national governments issued a series of housing orders to try to prevent the spread of the virus. But existing EU rules allowed free range birds to be housed for just 12 weeks before they lost their free range status - creating a huge financial risk for producers whose eggs would have to be downgraded to barn.

Egg industry leaders from across the EU, including the UK, lobbied the European Commission for a change to these rules. The Commission eventually agreed to extend to 16 weeks the period that birds could be housed without losing their status. This rule change came into force on November 25.

Charles Bourns, chairman of the poultry and eggs working party of Copa Cogeca

News that the rule change had now been adopted was welcomed by Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA). "They have now formally ratified the proposal that they made late last summer or early autumn. It is not ideal. We would have preferred an extension to 20 weeks but it is an improvement on last year," said Robert. "The extension to 16 weeks and the change in the point from which the 16 weeks is counted will hopefully see producers through." Under the commission amendment, the 16-week period will now start from when each individual flock is housed.

Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) and secretary general of EUWEP, the European body representing egg packers, egg traders and egg processors, and poultry and game, has already said that the new rules could be enough to see the egg industry through the high risk winter period if housing orders were avoided before mid-December.

Charles Bourns, chairman of the poultry and eggs working party of Copa Cogeca - and former chairman of the NFU poultry board - has said he believes that most free range producers would have retained their free range status if the 16-week rule had been in place last winter.

Charles said that he would have ideally liked to have seen an extension to 20 weeks, but he thought the Commission proposal was a good compromise, particularly as the proposal would change the point from which housed status was counted.

In an official statement on the rule change, the European Commission, said, "An initial EU-wide standard from 2008 allowed egg producers to continue to market their products as free range even if their hens had no open-air access for up to 12 weeks. The latest change, which comes into force on 25 November 2017, will extend this period to 16 weeks.

"The changes to the rules come as a direct response from the European Commission to concerns raised by EU hen farmers about the potential economic losses for free range farms. In times of high risk of avian influenza EU-wide veterinary rules require hens to be kept indoors in order reduce the risk of infections from migratory birds, but this is directly at odds with EU rules on free range eggs which state that laying hens must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs.

"The marketing standards already allowed eggs to be labelled as free range even if birds were kept indoors as a result of EU-wide measures, but the 12 week derogation was considered too short in the face of the prolonged nature of the influenza outbreak across the EU in 2016. This meant that eggs normally marketed as free range had to be sold as barn eggs if the hens were kept indoors for more than 12 weeks, leading to economic losses for farmers.

"With the likelihood of further prolonged outbreaks of avian influenza in the future, and following discussions with member state authorities and industry stakeholders, the decision was taken to extended the period from 12 to 16 weeks.

"The new rules also clarify that this derogation applies at the level of flocks (rather than regions or farms). This allows farms having introduced new flocks during the restriction period to benefit from the full derogation; eggs from each individual flock on the same farm can be labelled as free-range for the full 16-week period if open air access is restricted, regardless of when the farm came under the restrictions."

Last winter highly pathogenic H5N8 swept across 18 European countries, including the United Kingdom. In the UK there were a total of 13 confirmed cases between December and June, although none of them involved commercial layer flocks. Six of the cases in
the UK involved backyard flocks, and there were also outbreaks in turkeys and game birds.

Cases of H5N8 were also recorded in Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Nigeria and Tunisia.

This winter there have been cases of AI in Italy, Bulgaria, Germany andthe Netherlands. In the UK the official risk of AI in wild birds has been raised by Defra from low to medium, although the official risk status for poultry remains low.

The European Commission says there are currently some 390 million hens in the EU, of which around 54 million (14 per cent) are kept in free range systems. Free range birds account for 53 per cent if birds in the UK, 40 per cent in Ireland, 21 per cent in Austria,
18 per cent in France and Germany and 15 per cent in the Netherlands.

In terms of flock size, the UK keeps the biggest share of the EU's population of free range hens (41 per cent), followed by Germany (17 per cent), France (16 per cent) and the Netherlands (10 per cent).


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