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28 February 2017

Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

By India Bourke

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still – as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its “free range” status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential – so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

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Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu.Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it.”

he British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting – whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. “Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels –  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic – and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified “free-range plus” to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens’ welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover – and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

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