Flockdown is over: what this means for food producers

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

The UK's chief veterinary officer has lifted flockdown rules across the country, amid caution that the avian influenza outbreak continues to rage. Pic: GettyImages/Stephen Barnes
The UK's chief veterinary officer has lifted flockdown rules across the country, amid caution that the avian influenza outbreak continues to rage. Pic: GettyImages/Stephen Barnes

Related tags Cage-free eggs avian flu free-range eggs

The good news is that the lockdown for free-range hens has been lifted and the birds are allowed to return to free-range roaming. But we're not yet over the worst outbreak of avian influenza in history, so how long with this freedom last? And what do the newest changes mean for the food production industry?

While the threat of bird flu poultry continues and the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) remains in force across the UK, the country's chief veterinary officer has confirmed that mandatory housing measures for poultry and captive birds has been lifted.

The devastating outbreak has been ranging since late 2021, resulting in free-range hens across the world having to be housed in a bid to protect them from contracting the disease. It’s been a turbulent time for egg suppliers, who have had to scramble to make the necessary changes in housing the hens as well as making mandatory labelling changes. 

There have been several enforced ‘flockdowns’ in the UK - the most recent beginning in November 2022 - meaning that hens that once met free-range standards no longer did. It has been dubbed as 'the worst season' for UK cases, resulting in the culling of over 1.3 million egg-laying hens and egg prices going through the roof.

However, it seems there's a light at the end of the flockdown tunnel and hens have been given the green light to once again roam freely outside. It also means that changes that egg producers and retailers made to the wording on their labels can now be reversed.

“It’s been a costly and worrying time for many egg farmers,”​ said Jade Collins, technical controller at food labelling expert Ashbury.

"They’ve had to adapt quickly to changes required to house, produce and label their products, all of which can be tricky to navigate at the best of times."

Back to free-range

Eggs in a cage dblight
Pic: GettyImages

Collins said labelling changes during flockdowns are essential in order to maintain consumer confidence.

“Labelling changes are a must, to help ensure consumers were fully informed about the status of the eggs they were buying and, if they weren’t allowed outdoors, they simply couldn’t be named as such," ​she said.

"I’m sure the lifting of restrictions will be highly welcomed across the board by egg producers who will once again be able to label their products free-range, and by many consumers who have no doubt missed being able to buy them."

Remain alert

Chickens in cages barbaragibbons
Pic: GettyImages

While the UK government's lifting is great news for producers, hens and consumers, the influenza hasn’t entirely gone away and biosecurity and safety remain a key focus.

“Whilst the lifting of the mandatory housing measures will be welcome news to bird keepers, scrupulous biosecurity remains the most critical form of defence to help keep your birds safe,"​ said Dr Christine Middlemiss, the UK's chief veterinary officer.

“It is thanks to the hard work of all bird keepers and vets who have played their part in keeping flocks safe this winter that we are in a position to take this action. However, the unprecedented nature of this outbreak has proven it’s more important than ever for bird keepers to remain vigilant for signs of disease and maintain stringent standards of biosecurity - so another ‘flockdown’ or tightening of the rules could still be on the horizon if things do worsen again.

"Which is why those working in the industry must be prepared to change their production quickly and efficiently." 

Ashbury’s advice

  • Be adaptable: Remain able to quickly respond to the rapid changes in legislation in order to remain compliant.
  • Be reputable: Due to an influx in inaccurate news reports, it’s vital to seek expert advice to remain compliant in the ever-evolving industry.
  • Be transparent: The current market is unprecedented for consumers with runaway food prices causing bigger challenges than ever before. Consumers, too, are very aware of the avian influenza outbreak, sparking many health concerns. To ease these anxieties, Ashbury recommends being completely open and share information to help shoppers feel fully informed to make safe choices.

Dr Middlemiss also assures that avian influenza does not easily spread to humans and it is in no way connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The UKHSA advise that the available evidence suggests viruses currently circulating in birds in the UK do not spread easily to people and food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. There is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry products, including eggs."

Ashbury is a regulatory consultancy dedicated to making global food compliance easy for food producers. Working with major brands and retailers, Ashbury’s experts help clients launch products and expand into new global markets, confident their labelling complies. It’s not just about supporting busy teams; it’s about protecting brands and consumers through accurate and compliant product information.

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