25 July 2017 | Online since 2003

12 July 2017

Proposal for AI winter garden in danger of collapse


This polytunnel winter garden solution was installed on Tim Bradleys new 16,000 multi-tier shed by Polybuild

The egg industry's winter garden plan to overcome the 12-week rule in the event of another bird flu crisis may be in danger of collapse.

Egg industry leaders in the United Kingdom have been pressing for action in the European Union since last winter when highly pathogenic H5N8 hit large parts of Europe. Free range birds were ordered to be locked up in the UK and other European countries to try to halt the spread of the virus but, under EU rules, free range hens can only be housed for 12 weeks before they lose their free range status.

A proposal drawn up by Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), would allow housed birds to maintain their free range status beyond 12 weeks if they had access to a winter garden. His plan won support from industry leaders in a number of other EU countries, but has struggled to gain the support of some key member states. The Ranger understands that France and Spain are two of the countries that are proving reluctant to support the proposal.

Mark, who is also secretary general of EUWEP, the representative body for the egg industry in the EU, is believed to have support from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, but experts advising the European Commission on agriculture have omitted any reference to the winter garden proposal from a draft amendment to EU regulations. "Some countries don't believe this should be the way forward," said Mark.

“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."

Mark had worked painstakingly with colleagues in other countries to find an answer to the 12-week issue. 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, but even this submission is now in danger of being sidelined.

The expert group's working document does suggest a draft amendment to current regulations, but only a minor one to clarify how the existing 12-week derogation should be applied. "Following serious outbreaks of avian influenza in the union, it appears necessary to further clarify rules in a view to their harmonised implementation throughout the union, in particular regarding the starting point of the derogation period," says the group in its working document.

In the current regulations, the clause relating to the 12-week derogation reads, "Hens must have continuous daytime access to open air runs. However, this requirement does not prevent a producer from restricting access for a limited period of time in the morning hours in accordance with usual good farming practice, including good animal husbandry practice.

"In case of other restrictions, including veterinary restrictions, adopted under Community law to protect public and animal health, having the effect of restricting access of hens to open air runs, eggs may continue to be marketed as free range eggs for the duration of the restriction, but under no circumstances for more than 12 weeks," it says.

In the expert group's working document, the second part of the clause has been amended, so that it reads, "Should union law require access of hens to open air runs to be restricted to protect public or animal health, eggs may be marketed as free range notwithstanding that restriction, provided that the laying hens have not had their access to open air runs restricted for a period of more than 12 weeks. That maximum period shall start from the date on which the respective group of laying hens put in place at the same time actually had their access to open air runs restricted."

Mark said that, without the use of winter gardens, the draft amendment was not sufficient to protect the viability of the free range sector in the event of future housing orders. He has also warned of a possible shortage of free range eggs this next winter if the Commission does not accept a solution to prevent the loss of free range status.

During last winter's housing order, the UK responded to the threat to free range status 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.

Mark has previously questioned whether the egg industry would be allowed to use the same solution again but, following the latest developments at the EU, he told the Ranger that a labelling scheme may be all that the industry had left if a winter garden derogation was not adopted. "If we don't get the winter gardens, we will be in a difficult position. We will be back to doing what we did last year."

Mark described what was happening at the European Union as "farcical." He said, "I have told them that." Mark said, "The current proposal from the EU is not practical. We can clearly see the results if the regulation is not amended - for example in Germany and the Netherlands, where free range eggs disappeared from the shops between February and April - consumption of free range eggs is only very slowly recovering and remains 25 per cent lower than before the housing order during last winter,” he said.

Mark has appealed to the European Commission and its expert working group to think again about its draft proposal and accept the industry's winter garden solution.

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