24 November 2017 | Online since 2003

31 October 2017

Video: Cage-free pledge by 2025 is a 'regrettable move', chief vet says


The UK's chief vet Nigel Gibbens said more thought needed to be given to what would happen in 2025

The UK's chief vet Nigel Gibbens has described the commitment by leading retailers to go cage-free by 2025 as a "regrettable move."

During a speech at the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) in South Wales, he spoke of the dilemma between retailers who wanted to move away from cage eggs and the risk of managing free range chickens in areas of the country at greater risk from avian flu.

The chief vet, who has previously questioned whether farmers should continue with free range production in areas of high risk from AI, said more thought needed to be given to what would happen in 2025.

"You have a retail sector that is committed to not having cage birds by 2025," he told EPIC delegates at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales.

"I think that is a real challenge for you. How do you respond to that? If there is a serious threat of avian flu we will have to return to housing. If we return to housing we will probably look at the risk and we might just return to housing in higher risk areas.

"Essentially what you are saying is that free range production in those higher risk areas close to significant bodies of water with significant numbers of wild birds is not where you want to be. So I am saying don't do that. And your customers are saying, 'but we want free range' or 'we want non-caged.' Where does that take you?

Mr Gibbens continued: "Only two per cent of production is barn eggs. Are you going to turn to barn eggs? And if you go to barn eggs what does good welfare look like in barn production? Do we have the science, the metrics, the experience that supports that?

"We have got to manage that very carefully. I think it's a regrettable move. Colony cages have a lot going for them and there is good evidence that that's the case. So if we know what it is and we know what's coming we have to deal with it effectively."

Cage-free pledge

All the major retailers in the United Kingdom have said that they will stop selling cage eggs by 2025.

Many leading foodservice companies have made the same commitment, although the egg industry is still trying to understand what will replace the existing enriched cages when the retailers abandon them.

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. Housing orders were put in place in an attempt to stop it spreading.

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

Avian influenza cases have begun to appear again across the Channel - in Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and the Netherlands.

In the UK, the risk of H5N8 re-appearing in wild birds has been increased from low to medium, although the risk for poultry remains low.

'Unparalleled epidemic'

Nigel Gibbens said that he was watching very carefully what was happening on the Continent, and described last year's situation as an "unparalleled epidemic".

"Last year we experienced an unparalleled epidemic of H5N8. This type of avian influenza was driven by disease in wild birds - in more species, more widespread than we had seen it before, which was a challenge for the whole of Europe. We are obviously monitoring that," he said.

"We are starting to see cases of H5N8 - not that many but they are appearing in Europe again. We have just raised the risk of H5N8 in wild birds in this country to medium. The risk to domestic poultry remains at low but that could increase if we see a further increase in the disease in wild birds.

"What we saw last year was a very strong threat from migrating wild birds, previously we had seen only isolated cases. Last year we saw a number of cases from East to West. That made us look with our European colleagues at what the risk factors were and it was quite clearly aquatic wild birds.

Mr Gibbens continued: "This year, if we see the same challenge from wild birds, we will, of course, consider a similar risk-based approach, which may mean we require housing in those higher risk areas close, within five kilometres, of significant bodies of water."

High and low risk areas

At the recent annual meeting of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) members voiced their opposition to the re-introduction of high and low risk areas.

BFREPA, itself, has said it is opposed to them. However, the chief vet insisted that he would be led by the evidence.

"We have to respond to what's actually happening - the intensity of risk," he said, "so if the intensity of risk is very high it is quite possible that it is a complete housing requirement.

"If it's focused - and across Europe we are seeing it focused in a similar way to the end of last year - it's possible we go for more risk based, only certain areas approach. But we have to see what happens. I really hope it doesn't come over this year in the same intensity that we saw last year."

'Dilemma'

Earlier this year, during the NFU conference in Birmingham, Nigel Gibbens said that producers in high risk areas of the country should consider whether running free range operations was sustainable.

During the EPIC conference, he said the decision by retailers to go cage-free was a dilemma for the egg industry.

He told The Ranger: "It presents a real conflict for producers. I will be saying that birds outside - especially in those areas close to bodies of water, even in normal circumstances - free range production is a higher risk. And we know it is; not just for avian flu, for other diseases as well.

"The birds are more exposed. That can be managed; it can be a very good system. But when there is high risk of avian flu they're better to be housed, which leads you to say that house systems give you better disease security.

"If we are seeing pressure from retailers and consumers for birds that aren't caged, that means free range in those areas isn't a great option, which means you've got to consider other options like barn production and this country hasn't traditionally done barn production.

"So my point is we need to think very carefully before we hit any real change as to what the best methods of production are," Mr Gibbens concluded.

A number of leading figures in the egg industry have called for clarity from retailers about what will replace enriched cage eggs in 2025.

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