29 May 2017 | Online since 2003

14 March 2017

Scottish Cabinet secretary demands labelling changes


Fergus Ewing

Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, has criticised egg box labelling designed to explain to consumers why free range birds have been housed during this winter's avian influenza crisis.

The Cabinet Secretary has written to leading retailers demanding that the stickers should only be applied to eggs from birds that remain housed after February 28 - the end of the 12-week housing period beyond which birds lose their free range status, according to European Union rules. A housing order has now been lifted from most parts of the United Kingdom - including all of Scotland - but it remains in place in parts of England seen as higher risk by Government vets.

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has produced a sticker to be applied to free range egg boxes. It reads, "Eggs laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare." The intention is that labels are applied to all free range boxes. But Fergus Ewing has asked for an assurance from retailers that they will only be applied to boxes of eggs from hens that remain housed.

In a letter to retailers, he said, "I am concerned by reports that some retailers may be requiring free range eggs from Scotland, where housing is not mandated, to be re-labelled in the same way as eggs from those producers subject to the housing requirement. I understand that this may be administratively convenient, but I do not believe that it is in the best interests of customers, producers or retailers.

"Scottish producers are able to produce free range eggs, customers want free range eggs and I think it is incumbent on retailers to meet that demand," he said. "It is potentially misleading to customers to have Scottish free range eggs labelled as something else. And it is unfair on producers to have their quality product misrepresented," he said.

The Cabinet Secretary said, "There is no reason why producers in Scotland and elsewhere should be disadvantaged as a result. I therefore seek your reassurance that your company will not be taking the approach that Scottish free range eggs have to over-stickered and that they will be presented in a way that reflects their production status and quality.

"I will fully support the Scottish eggs industry in resisting any requirements to over-sticker free range egg packs when free range eggs will be readily available from Scottish producers," he said.

A housing order was introduced in early December and subsequently extended until the end of February in an attempt to control the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Some 820 outbreaks of H5N8 have been recorded in Europe this winter - 10 of them in the UK.

Most of the outbreaks have been in England, with just one in Wales and none in Scotland. However, some Scottish producers believe that the risk of letting birds out on the range is still too great and they have opted to continue housing their birds. One of them is John Retson, a former chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA).

"My vet told me that, unless we have four weeks without an outbreak, then the risk of letting them out is too great. That's my reason for keeping my birds housed. I still feel we need to be on high alert," said John, who was critical of the Cabinet Secretary. "I think Fergus Ewing's letter was completely wrong and unhelpful."

John praised British Egg Industry Council chief executive Mark Williams for the way he had addressed the issue of labelling. Robert Gooch, chief executive of BFREPA, also said that the BEIC's approach was the correct one.

"The chief veterinary officers in all the devolved countries have said that producers need to take the utmost precautions even in areas where birds are now allowed out," said Robert. "Producers who choose to house birds are taking a responsible position and should not be disadvantaged in the marking of their eggs by potentially losing their free range premium.

"Administratively, it would be impossible to react each time an individual producer decided to house their birds in response to seabirds or other wild birds close to their unit. It makes sense that all eggs should be labelled as temporarily housed."

Robert said, "Free range producers want to take a united approach. One minute a producer's birds may be housed, the next minute not. It would be impossible to keep changing the labelling. The approach taken by the BEIC is the sensible one."

In an article written for the Scotsman newspaper, Fergus Ewing said that Scottish producers had a choice about whether to let their birds range again or keep them in. "Birds which continue to be kept indoors will no longer qualify as free range under EU law, however. It is a commercial decision for each individual farmer."

He said, "As long as Scottish farmers continue to produce free range eggs, these should be made available to consumers and clearly labelled as such. It would be unhelpful for the free range provenance of many Scottish eggs to be hidden from consumers’ view because of a UK-wide marketing approach, which does not make the differences clear across our countries."

The current restrictions will remain in place across the United Kingdom until the end of April. It is hoped that by that time migrating will birds will have left the country and the threat of avian influenza will have reduced.

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