Dutch MPs put questions to the European Commission requesting decisions on the status of free range as a category during the bird flu crisis which will hugely affect the poultry industry throughout 2017.
For poultry products to be labelled as free range in the EU, farmers must adhere to strict welfare regulations. Birds must have constant access to a natural outdoor area, food and water and live in lower densities.
However, in case of veterinary emergencies - such as the current crisis - poultry can be kept indoors for up to 12 weeks.
Farmers fear that the spread of the virus will continue to prevent them meeting these requirements – bans on allowing birds outside remain in place in many parts of the EU and could damage the poultry market for years to come.
The effects of the crisis on the food industry are already being felt, with prices rising substantially for eggs and other poultry products like foie grois.
The MEPs write: “Will the Commission amend the trading standards dating from 2008 so that, where veterinary restrictions apply because of bird flu, free-range status is not lost after 12 weeks, and when could such an amendment be implemented? It should be borne in mind in this context that loss of status not only has consequences for producers of free-range eggs but would also distort the market for barn eggs and undermine investment in free-range facilities.”
Bas Belder and Jan Huitema, Dutch MEPs from centre right and centre left parties respectively, also raised the concern that consumers would lose their freedom of choice, something that should be protected regardless of the reality of current farming conditions.
Robert Gooch, chief executive of British free range egg poultry association (BFREPA) said:
“Housing birds that are used to being outside is difficult for producers but is a vital precautionary step to protect the health free range hens. This is a situation that is not of farmers’ making. It will be seen as a necessary step to protect production of free range eggs. Contracting the H5N8 strain of avian influenza causes high levels of mortality in hens. It has already been found on a turkey farm in Lincolnshire and in a small, backyard poultry flock in Camarthenshire, so we know that it poses a significant threat. The rapid spread of AI across Europe has seen many flocks wiped out and we must do whatever we can to protect the UK flock. We would urge all poultry keepers, regardless of their size, to follow the rules of the housing order and for good biosecurity protocols to be followed at all times.”
The final months of 2016 saw the spread of several types of avian influenza, some dangerous to humans, circulating around the EU. Widespread cases are still plaguing poultry farmers in Russia and further into Asia.
Cases have been confirmed in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Croatia, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.
Prevention zones have been established throughout the EU restricting movement and often requiring the culling and slaughter of thousands of birds.
Several cases have now also been confirmed in the UK, with protective cordons established in Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland. The prevention zones, established by the Department for Environment & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will stay in place until 28 February at the earliest.