25 June 2018 | Online since 2003

10 August 2017

European Commission puts forward compromise after failing to get member states to agree proposal

Experts meeting in Brussels have failed to reach agreement on a solution to the 12-week rule in the event of further outbreaks of avian influenza, leaving the European Commission to attempt to press on with its own suggested compromise.

Under current European Union rules, free range birds can only be locked up for a maximum of 12 weeks without losing their free range status. Government housing orders extending beyond this regulatory period would result in eggs being downgraded and producers facing significant financial losses. Based on figures produced by Ranger magazine, losses for the UK free range egg sector could run into millions of pounds if eggs were downgraded.

Egg industry representatives from European countries led by Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) and secretary general of EUWEP - a representative body for the egg industry in the EU, have been seeking a solution that would head off a crisis this coming winter. But there was disagreement at the latest meeting of experts in Brussels. The option submitted by Mark Williams was to allow housed birds to maintain their free range status for 20 weeks if they had access to a winter garden. This solution now seems to be dead.

After experts who advise the European Commission on agriculture met on July 20 to discuss the issue, Mark said, "Many member states found the proposal (the so called compromise) a step in the right direction. Many wanted a longer period, with or without restrictions. However, some member states still supported no change."

He said that the Commission was seeking to find a consensus and had proposed extending the existing 12-week derogation to 16 weeks. This 16-week derogation would apply to each flock rather than to the farm, as is the case now. The derogation would start from the date the flock was housed rather than from when the hens laid their first egg. After 16 weeks the eggs would be downgraded to barn.

"It seems that our attempts to have 20 weeks allowed and/or winter gardens allowed in the egg marketing regulation to extend the period when birds are housed to retain free range status has not been successful," said Mark.

"If this is the direction the Commission are taking then, as previously advised, this will discourage industry from seeking an early housing order for fear of losing free range marketing status, should the AI virus persist. "If this is indeed the case, we will consider what our next steps are," he said.

Any decision is unlikely to come quickly. Mark said that the proposed extension to 16 weeks would be subject to internal consultations, external consultations, then two months for the European Parliament and the Council to consider the plan. "If everything progresses smoothly, the Commission hopes to finalise this mid-December, otherwise the end of December 2017," he said. Poultry industry leaders had been hoping to have a solution in place before the onset of the dangerous winter season for avian influenza, when migrating birds can carry the virus across Europe.

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA), said that the proposed 16-week derogation would need to be ratified through "endless EU procedures." He said, "These include an inter-service consultation with the other directorates of the European Commission; a month long online consultation with stakeholders, including consumers; formal translation of draft legal texts in all the EU languages and rubber stamping by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. After all that, the EU egg marketing regulation will be formally amended but this will not be before mid-December

"Between now and December, when the agreement is enacted into EU law, anything could happen, but it is highly unlikely that the 16-week compromise agreed in committee will be changed.”

Robert said he supported the Commission's intention to start the timing of the proposed 16-week derogation from placement of flock. “From a producers’ point of news, this change is favourable, although it could prove to be a nightmare to manage for packers, auditors and EMIs. This probably explains why some industry representatives fought very hard to stop this new interpretation of the housing order timeframe. A Commission representative said, 'I can’t understand why the industry wants the housing order timer to apply to their flocks when their sheds are empty'," said Robert. "This should mean that, for example, members with 56-week old birds at the time a housing order is announced will not have to worry about losing free range status even if the housing order goes on beyond 28 weeks," he said.

During the last outbreak, a total of 13 cases of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza hit the UK between December last year and June this year. Across the Channel H5N8 was reported in 17 other European countries. Cases were also recorded in Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Nigeria and Tunisia.

The UK and other EU countries issued housing orders last winter to try to prevent the spread of the virus. The UK responded to the threat to free range status posed by the 12-week rule by agreeing an emergency labelling scheme in which all egg boxes were affixed with labels to explain to consumers why birds were being housed.

The industry avoided having to mark the eggs as barn eggs - the inevitable consequence of free range producers losing their free range status. However, Mark Williams has questioned whether the egg industry would be allowed to use the same solution again. He has been seeking a longer term answer.

Mark had worked with colleagues in other countries to agree a common position. Their resulting plan would have ensured that free range status was retained as long as birds had access to a winter garden during a period of veterinary restriction - even beyond the 12 weeks. The proposal was that there should be no time limit on maintaining free range status beyond 12 weeks as long as the birds were housed as a result of veterinary restrictions.
Initial feedback to the industry's plan suggested that the Commission would not accept an open-ended extension to the 12 weeks, so Mark and his colleagues amended their proposal. The amendment would have seen the 12-week housing derogation for free range producers extended to 20 weeks.

Mark is believed to have had support from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. However, the Ranger understands that France and Spain were reluctant to support the proposal.

Mark said previously, “We need to find a solution to the threat of bird flu that protects hens and ensures transparency to consumers. We know that consumers would rather see birds and producers protected – research in the UK and Netherlands has clearly illustrated this, so the use of winter gardens to allow hens limited access to outdoor space is the most sensible compromise. We also need measures for informing consumers which do not create confusion or undermine consumer confidence, and want to see the Commission address this issue in the regulations."

He has warned of a possible shortage of free range eggs this next winter if the Commission does not agree a solution. He said that in Germany and the Netherlands, where free range eggs disappeared from the shops between February and April last year, consumption of free range eggs had only very slowly recovered and remained 25 per cent lower than before the housing order.


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