Eggs produced in the EU could continue to be labelled as “free range”, even if the birds are not allowed outside, under new proposals.

The European Commission has put forward plans for scrapping the time limit on the marketing of eggs as free range if chickens are forced to be housed to reduce the risk of outbreaks of bird flu.

It comes after mainland Europe and the UK have suffered the worst bird flu outbreak on record this year. More than 46 million birds have been culled on farms across the continent so far, with France suffering particularly badly. In the UK, there have been more than 100 highly pathogenic outbreaks.

In past years, outbreaks of avian influenza (AI) declined with warmer weather and the end of the wild-bird migration in the autumn and winter months. But outbreaks have continued across the UK and elsewhere in Europe for far longer this year.

The order to keep birds indoors in the UK, which began last November, was lifted only in August, while in some parts of the Netherlands housing orders have now lasted more than 10 months.

Marion Koopmans, a World Health Organization adviser, has said bird flu was no longer just a seasonal threat, with local circulation now year-round in Europe. An avian flu vaccine for chickens is not yet available, although trials are under way.

Farmers have been given longer and longer grace periods of 12, and now 16 weeks, during which time eggs can continue to be marketed as free range as long as a compulsory housing order is in place.

Three people in white hazmat suits pick up the corpses of birds as other birds fly overhead
National Trust rangers clear dead birds from Staple Island, Northumberland, where bird flu is devastating one of the UK’s most important seabird colonies. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

However, this year, the extended outbreaks meant that after a 16-week grace period, free-range eggs had to carry a label saying they were “barn eggs” – the term for eggs from hens kept indoors permanently.

There have been fears of a collapse of the free-range egg sector if producers could no longer label their eggs as free range, despite the extra costs associated with the meeting the standard, such as reduced stocking density. Last year, almost two-thirds of 11.3bn eggs produced in the UK were free range.

Under the new rules, farmers in the EU would no longer have to drop the free-range label on their eggs if there was an extended compulsory housing order.

A draft proposal from the commission, which would need to be approved by the European parliament before it went into force, says: “Where temporary restrictions have been imposed on the basis of [European] Union legislation, eggs may be marketed as ‘free range’ notwithstanding that restriction.”

Egg producers in the UK said it was essential that the UK government now followed suit to avoid British suppliers being undercut by EU imports.

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, said: “It’s very necessary that the UK aligns with the EU, otherwise retailers will import eggs labelled as free range from housed hens in the EU in the event of an AI epidemic when there are none on the UK market.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is understood to be considering how to respond to the EU’s proposals.

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Source: The Guardian