29 May 2017 | Online since 2003

14 March 2017

Egg inspectors issue no tolerance warning for overstocking


Trevor Sellars

Government inspectors have revealed that more than half of all egg production units checked so far for overstocking have been in breach of the rules.

As we have reported previously, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) launched a crackdown on stocking rates towards the end of last year, after issuing warnings to the industry in previous years that the agency would take action unless producers complied with the regulations. Inspectors started seizing records from pullet rearers and have been inspecting laying farms suspected of breaking the rules.

APHA has now revealed that it had carried out 185 farm inspections up until February 20 this year. Of these, 100 had been found to have been overstocked - 54 per cent of units so far audited. Producers found to be in breach of the regulations have had their eggs downgraded. They have also lost earned recognition - meaning that they will receive more regular visits from inspectors in the future.

At one free range farm in Norfolk, the inspectors arrived just days after a mobile shed was turned over and destroyed by storms.



APHA investigations are continuing. The agency says it has identified 400 units across England and Wales that may have been overstocked. As well as seizing records from pullet rearers under threat of police enforcement, inspectors are pursuing legal action. One producer, John Edward Morgan of Gorse Farm, Llandridod Wells in Powys, has been handed an 18-month suspended prison sentence for overstocking.

Free range egg producer Trevor Sellers has warned that the inspectors are allowing no margin of error at all in their drive to clamp down on overstocking. Trevor, who farms in Oakham in Leicestershire and who sits on the council of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), was caught out inadvertently when inspectors re-measured his shed and decided it was slightly smaller than previous inspectors had calculated. Even then, he was just a couple of hundred birds over - but Trevor still had his eggs downgraded for two days, losing him nearly a thousand pounds as a result of APHA's action, he says.

"Producers need to be warned that the inspectors are accepting absolutely no margin of error," said Trevor. "You only need to be one bird over. Pullet rearers have usually allowed for a small margin over but that will have to stop. It's very draconian. Producers will need to be very careful in future."

Inspectors have been checking BEIC Lion passports and animal transport certificates for evidence of overstocking. A BEIC passport shows the number of birds that should be housed; a transport certificate provides evidence of the number delivered. Where producers are believed to have had too many birds, APHA will seek to ascertain whether any of the birds have been sold on. If investigators decide there is a case for pursuing enforcement action against individual producers, inspectors can issue welfare notices and downgrade eggs.

At one free range farm in Norfolk, the inspectors arrived just days after a mobile shed was turned over and destroyed by storms. It was the largest of five sheds on the farm and had about 2,900 birds in it at the time the storm struck. Some 400 birds died. The rest were quickly housed as a temporary measure in other units and in a grain store.

"The following week the inspectors turned up and told us we were overstocked," said the producer, who asked not to be identified. "They gave us 10 days to sort it out. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth, to be honest."

The producer told the Ranger that the birds would probably have to be culled. "No-one wants to be taking birds in the current climate," he said, referring to the strict bio-security measures in place across the country because of the threat of avian influenza. He said he had not yet decided whether or not to replace the damaged unit.

Trevor Sellers' eggs were downgraded to what he says was termed "non-descriptive." He expects to receive less than 10 pence a dozen for the eggs. Some 1,200 dozen of Trevor's eggs were downgraded, but he says it could have been much worse.

"They decided I was 255 birds overstocked," said Trevor, who has two sheds on his farm - an 8,000-bird unit and a 12,500-bird unit. The overstocking was deemed to have taken place in his smaller shed, but he had room to move the excess birds to his larger unit without breaching the limit in that house. "I was able to move the birds while the inspectors were there. They counted them all off, so everything was then OK. If I hadn't been able to do that, my eggs would have been downgraded until the inspectors made another visit - probably the following week." The two days' eggs awaiting collection from the smaller shed were downgraded by the inspectors.

Trevor said that the offending shed had been measured four times previously by inspectors, who consistently recorded that the unit was big enough for 8,000 birds. During the latest inspection, the measurements were inexplicably smaller. The inspectors said he was allowed only allowed 7,745 birds in the unit.

He said the inspectors were at his farm from nine o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock in the evening, pouring over his units and his records. "They say you have to keep egg collection tickets for two years. I have never done that before. I have only ever kept them for six months. They also want to see records of any gate sales going back two years. They want to know exactly how many eggs you have produced."

In 2012 the then Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) said that farmers breaking the rules could face prosecution if they ignored warnings. Tony Potter, then with AHVLA and now with APHA, wrote to both the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) and the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) warning about overstocking. He asked the two organisations to warn its members to stick to permitted stocking rates or face enforcement action.

He wrote, “I felt it important to bring to your attention a new rumour circulating (particularly, it seems, in the free range world). A producer has reported that he and others are being encouraged to take on more birds by their rearers (or suppliers of replacement birds), when they re-populate their flocks. I am aware of the industry reports of increased numbers of hens being reared and of rearers seeking part payment in advance of delivery etc – this suggestive of an oversupply situation which may add some credibility to this rumour.”

He said, “I should, therefore, be grateful if, through your connections to your respective memberships, (and through your auditors) that you make clear what the legal stocking densities/rates are. There has been a tremendous effort by all producers to comply with both the cage ban and the stocking density requirements which came in on 1 January 12. It would be a great shame to move away from this position of compliance,” he said.

It was on January 1, 2012 that the rules on internal stocking density changed for longstanding producers. A European Union directive was introduced on August 3, 1999 reducing the stocking rate for free range egg producers from 11.7 hens per square metre to nine hens per square metre. New producers were required to stock at the new density immediately, but the EU allowed a derogation to give existing producers time to switch over to the updated regulations. They were allowed to continue stocking at 11.7 hens per square metre. That derogation came to an end in December 2011. The EU limits external stocking density to 2,500 birds per hectare, although the Lion code limits external stocking density to 2,000 birds per hectare.

In 2013 there was another warning about overstocking, this time from the Environment Agency. It wrote to the NFU and BEIC to say, “Poultry sites with places for more than 40,000 birds require an environmental permit from the Environment Agency in order to operate legally. It has come to light in a number of prosecution cases that companies have supplied more than 40,000 birds to poultry sites that did not have a permit.” It warned that companies supplying more than 40,000 birds to an unpermitted site could be committing an offence under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. It said that pullet rearers could be deemed to be knowingly causing the operation of a regulated facility without a permit.

The Ranger understands that, following its recent operations, APHA allegedly found one egg producer with 2,000 birds more than he should have on a 16,000-bird unit.


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