Kent farmers allay concerns as free-range eggs become unavailable from Monday

Free range eggs will no longer be available in shops tomorrow after hens have been forced indoors because of an avian flu outbreak.

Farmers were ordered to keep all birds inside since November following outbreaks of the H5N8 strain, which led to captive poultry flocks being culled.

Chickens have been in ‘lockdown’

Kent farmers have escaped unscathed.

But after the 16-week lockdown period they must be labeled “barn eggs,” as chickens have not had access to outdoor runs.

The county’s farmers are hopeful the housing order will be lifted soon as temperatures rise, with the arrival of spring and outbreaks decline.

“There isn’t an awful lot of avian flu in this area, it is one of those things that comes around every year and it is just something farmers just have to deal with,” a spokesman for Longland Farm near Canterbury said.

“This has happened before and the labeling is largely arbitrary anyway, in fact people haven’t been eating free range eggs for the past few months.

Eggs will carry new labeling from Monday
Eggs will carry new labeling from Monday

“The cut-off point when the labeling has to change has been decided as 16 weeks, and I don’t think the quality of the product is going to be affected from one day to the next.

“I believe the changes (in taste) which will occur would already have occurred over the last 16 weeks, but of course that is just my perspective.”

Eggs sold in shops will have to carry a label saying they are “barn eggs,” the labeling given to those produced by hens housed permanently indoors.

Retailers will need to take a “wait and see” approach, to see if the re-labeling affects sales, a spokesman for the former Halfway Egg Farm, now the Featherbed Farm Shop in Iwade said.

“Some farmers I’m sure have found it easier to look after the birds because they haven’t got to worry about their welfare at night, or predators, or things like that,” they explained.

“Hens have been housed inside due to the threat of bird flu, the eggs we’ve been eating lately haven’t been free range, they’ve been barn eggs.

Chickens have been unable to be kept outside because of the outbreak
Chickens have been unable to be kept outside because of the outbreak

“It is hard to say whether the re-branding will affect sales, we’ll have to wait and see, all eggs now have to be labeled barn eggs,” they continued.

The UK was hit by the “largest ever outbreak of avian flu” this winter, government officials said, with more than 80 reported outbreaks in England.

So far no outbreaks have been reported in Kent and the closest, which is now under control, has been in Suffolk.

However all birds which produce eggs and meat, no matter the size of the flock, have been kept inside.

Jane Roberts, of Sandgate Road in Folkestone, explained her hens, which have been housed in a coop in her garden, have thrived under the conditions.

“Really, it hasn’t been too arduous for the birds because it has been winter and, like humans, they like to keep warm and spend the majority of time inside anyway.

There have been no cases of bird flu in Kent so far
There have been no cases of bird flu in Kent so far

“They’ve been doing really well. I keep them with fresh bedding and food and they have plenty of space here, and the sun hits their coop which they love.

“We’ve even bought a three month old – she isn’t ready to lay yet.”

Asked if there had been a deterioration in flavor of the eggs they lay, she said: “No. The difference in flavor beats shop bought by a country mile. “

In the UK, there are four legal categories for eggs; free range, organic, caged and barn.

For eggs to be termed ‘free range’, hens must have continuous daytime access to runs.

Organic hens must be fed an organic diet and reared on organic land, with six hens per square meter.

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.”

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