Customers will no longer be able to buy free-range eggs in supermarkets across the UK from Monday after British hens spent the last four months indoors due to the risk of avian flu outbreaks.
All birds, including free-range ones, were ordered to be kept indoors in after outbreaks of the H5N8 strain of avian flu, which led to captive birds and poultry flocks being culled.
Free-range eggs will be labeled “barn eggs” instead from Monday 21 March, which is the name given to eggs produced by permanently indoor birds.
Over the winter period, the “biggest ever outbreak of bird flu in Great Britain” led to more than 80 confirmed outbreaks across the country and the deaths of thousands of birds.
To stop the disease from spreading further, the government issued guidance for “disease control zones” to be put in place, which restricted the movement of poultry and materials associated with their keeping.
The rules apply to any type of bird-keeping, whether commercial or individually-owned.
Under EU law, free-range laying hens can be kept indoors for up to 16 weeks for their eggs to still be labeled free-range. However, that period has now expired.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the Guardian: “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 will provide customers with signs explaining the change, but added that eggs will return to being free-range once the current measures are lifted.
Farmers are hopeful that the housing order will be lifted soon as temperatures rise with the arrival of spring and outbreaks decline.
Currently, the risk level for poultry exposure to avian flu is medium where good biosecurity is applied, but increased to high “where there are substantial biosecurity breaches”, according to Defra.
Meanwhile, the risk in wild birds increased from high to very high in England and high for Wales and Scotland.
Aimee Mahony, chief poultry adviser of the National Farmers’ Union, 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.”