Consumers will no longer be able to buy free-range eggs in the UK from Monday, with birds not having been allowed outdoors since November due to fears of avian flu outbreaks.
Eggs sold in shops will have to carry a sticker or label saying they are in fact “barn eggs”, the name given to eggs produced by hens permanently housed indoors.
The UK was hit by what government officials have said is the “largest ever outbreak of avian flu” this winter, with more than 80 reported outbreaks in England.
As a result, birds reared for meat and eggs have been ordered by the UK government to be kept indoors since November to reduce the risk of outbreaks. The length of time they have been kept indoors means their eggs can now no longer be labeled free-range.
The rules apply to all birds, whether produced by one hen in a garden or a large-scale poultry business.
Farmers had hoped the government would lift the housing order next week, but after new avian flu outbreaks in the past week, officials have decide to keep the order in place.
Suffolk-based egg producer Daniel Brown, who keeps more than 40,000 free-range hens, said his birds had coped well indoors so far.
“We’ve given them extra things in the shed like hay and grit to give them things to peck at and keep them amused.”
Brown said avian flu outbreaks usually drop off as the weather warms, so he hopes the latest housing order will be lifted soon.
“A chicken won’t be bothered about not going outside in December and January, but when it’s nice in May they’ll want to be out late into the evening,” he said.
The UK has not been alone in being affected by avian flu outbreaks this year, with continental Europe suffering one its worst winters for the disease too.
France has been trialling avian influenza vaccines, but the solution has been complicated by the numerous strains of bird flu and the bans some countries have on importing poultry meat from countries that vaccinate birds.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The 16-week grace period we allowed for free-range eggs has now been exceeded, and eggs must now be marketed as ‘barn eggs’. We have worked closely with the sector and retailers to implement these changes as smoothly as possible. “
The British Retail Consortium said that supermarkets would be providing signage to explain the change to consumers, but that “when the current measures are lifted, eggs will go back to being free-range”.
The National Farmers’ Union’s chief poultry adviser, Aimee Mahony, said: “Shoppers may notice different labels on egg packs explaining that the eggs have been laid by hens temporarily housed to protect their health and welfare. Once the risk levels have reduced and the housing measures have been lifted by Defra, birds will be able to go outside again. “