'Free range' status of Offaly eggs at risk
Free range egg producers in Offaly will be unable to market their eggs as 'free range' if their birds are kept indoors for more than 12 weeks as they comply with the compulsory disease control regulations, according to Mairead McGuinness MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament.
The problem is acute in some member states and concerns about avian influenza have increased with over 20,000 birds slaughtered in the UK due to avian influenza, McGuinness has warned.
“Thankfully, in Ireland, we have managed to keep the visas out of commercial flocks by keeping hens indoors and using strict bio-security measures. However, a problem is now emerging which could hit the profitability of free range egg producers, who are complying with disease control rules but face losing their “free range” status should birds be indoors for more than 12 weeks,” she said.
McGuinness added that responsible flock owners are complying with the disease control requirements, but the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, has ruled out any derogation from the 12 week rule. As a result, eggs produced from traditional free range birds, which are housed for disease control measures beyond 12 weeks cannot be sold as 'free range'.
“This means a potential drop in the price producers receive for their eggs and a requirement to rebrand their production at further cost,” McGuinness underlined.
In a letter to members of the agriculture committee this week, Commissioner Hogan argues that the 12 week rule must continue to apply and that he stands ready to support the sector where there are major losses due to an outbreak of avian influenza. McGuinness said that we will need to look at this situation and find a more acceptable solution which addresses disease control measures and consumer demands for “free range” eggs.
“If it is in the interests of the health and welfare of hens to keep them indoors and free from disease, then we must address the marketing issues around definition of 'free range'. Commissioner Hogan said that the integrity and credibility of marketing standards were introduced to protect consumers and he, therefore, will not table a proposal to extend the derogation beyond 12 weeks.
“While this is valid, it flies against the conflicting demand to control diseases in wild birds affecting free range flocks and some sensible solution must be found to this situation."
"The EU and member states can support flock owners where birds are hit by bird flu, there is no support available for income lost through changing from “free range”, or for the additional costs of changing packaging and labelling, which can be significant.”
McGuinness has also called for a debate about free range status in the context of disease risks.