Consumers concerned with laying hen welfare will be pleased to see ‘free-range’ eggs returning to supermarket shelves as the Avian Influenza (bird flu) housing order which has been in place for the past 5 months is lifted on 18 April 2023.
Poultry expert, Dr Kate Norman, answers your egg-celent questions on what this all means for hen welfare and the eggs on our supermarket shelves.
When will free-range eggs be back on the shelves?
When the housing order is lifted in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, on 18 April, free-range hens will be able to access outside-range areas straight away and their eggs can be labelled ‘free-range’ once again. Consumers should therefore start to see free-range eggs appearing on supermarket shelves within days.
Why were eggs labelled ‘barn eggs’ and not ‘free-range’ in the first place?
To protect them from the spread of bird flu there was a temporary change to the way that free-range hens were raised which meant that birds were no longer able to have outside access as there was a legal requirement to keep hens housed. Egg Marketing Standards Regulations state that free-range laying hens can be kept inside for up to 16 weeks when necessary and their eggs can still be labelled free-range during this time. This period came to an end in February 2023, meaning all eggs from free-range birds being kept inside had to be labelled as ‘barn eggs’.
Did consumers notice the change?
Yes! They noticed - there was a huge rise in Google Searches for the term ‘free-range’ the last time eggs were labelled barn - a whopping 800% increase.
We are encouraged that this shows that consumers are concerned about laying hen welfare. However, we also understand that this change led to confusion over the disappearance of ‘free-range’ eggs from the supermarket shelves.
Does RSPCA Assured certify barn eggs or only free range?
RSPCA Assured approves free-range, organic and barn systems for keeping laying hens, chickens and turkeys, providing the RSPCA’s stricter higher welfare standards are being met. Every RSPCA Assured member farm is 100% cage-free and the hens are provided plenty of space to move around with raised perches and enrichment inside the barn to peck at, forage and express their natural behaviour. This means that whether indoor or outdoor, RSPCA Assured labelled products are always higher welfare.
Are there any concerns about the hens moving from being inside to outdoor - will they find it stressful?
Providing birds with outdoor access gives them the freedom to express a greater range of natural behaviours. However, if birds are not used to the outside environment it could be stressful for the birds when they are first let outside. RSPCA Assured has provided advice to our member farmers to help reduce the stress for birds and encourage them outside. These include: providing more shelters around the popholes to act as a ‘corridor’ to outside, and offering enrichment and resources around these areas such as areas to dustbathe and perches. Wind breaks and barriers around popholes (access areas) in particularly exposed areas may help to encourage birds outside.
Does that mean Avian Influenza is no longer a problem?
Unfortunately, Avian Influenza is a highly contagious virus that affects both wild birds and kept poultry. The scale of bird flu outbreaks amongst poultry across the UK (and Europe) has been unprecedented with over 300 cases confirmed here since late October 2021. The lifting of the housing order on 18 April sadly does not mean that AI has disappeared, but the risk of bird flu has been assessed and reduced to ‘medium’ for premises with poor biosecurity and ‘ low’ where good biosecurity is applied. We’re therefore really pleased that the housing order has been lifted and that free-range birds can be let outside.
Farmers will still need to ensure that they have good biosecurity in place, enhanced biosecurity requirements that were brought in as part of the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) will remain in force.
Could hens have to go back inside and eggs labelled ‘barn’ again in future?
Like all viruses, the situation with bird flu will be carefully monitored to understand how it is spreading and the risks to kept poultry. Bird flu is more prominent over the winter months which means that we could expect housing orders to be put in place again towards the end of the year. However, we hope that good biosecurity measures will continue to prevent the spread and the levels of risk to poultry flocks, so that the hens can continue to enjoy the range and consumers will still be able to buy free-range eggs from their local supermarkets.