Free range eggs 'will run out by March' because of bird flu, MP warns

Free range eggs ‘will run out by March’ because of bird flu crisis MP warns – as fears grow of Christmas turkey shortages

  • The government ordered all farm birds to be kept indoors from November 7
  • But after 16 weeks indoors, hens are no longer allowed to be called free range
  • It means free range farmers will have to change their labelling on February 27
  • Supermarkets are already having to ration eggs due to the supply issues 

Free range eggs will run out of stock by March as Britain’s poultry industry is hit by the worst avian influenza outbreak on record, MPs have warned. 

The essential food item could see production lines severely impacted until Christmas next year, with reports of some supermarkets already rationing egg boxes.  

Britain’s health chiefs have already culled almost four million birds this year and on November 7 ordered the lockdown of all kept birds in a bid to stall the spread. 

But once hens have been indoors for 16 weeks, the eggs they produce can no longer be marked as ‘free range’. 

Once hens have been indoors for 16 weeks, the eggs they produce can no longer be marked as ‘free range’ (Pictured: An out of stock notice next to the egg sheleves in a Tesco supermarket today)

Industry chiefs said the outbreak is the worst they had ever seen. Pictured: Dead Turkeys are loaded onto a JCB at Redgrave Park Farm, Suffolk, following an outbreak of Birdflu

It means that, in England and Wales, free range sellers would have to change their labels on February 27, branding them ‘barn eggs’ instead. Scotland has yet to order all birds be kept indoors. 

Cat Smith, Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, yesterday told a debate in Westminster Hall: ‘It’s likely that we will breach that 16-week grace period at the moment because of the state of the influenza outbreak.

‘And I’m very aware a lot of producers are now going to have additional costs in terms of rebranding their products which will no longer be free range at the end of this process.’

The highly contagious avian influenza strain – (HPAI) H5N1 – is currently killing or resulting in the culling of tens of thousands of birds each day, following its outbreak in October 2021. 

There have been a total of 257 confirmed cases in England, however a majority of those (137), were detected since October this year, suggesting the trajectory of the outbreak has dramatically picked up pace. 

Once one case is confirmed on a farm, the entire flock must be culled, with businesses losing hundreds or thousands of birds at a time. 

It comes as the EU is contemplating extending the grace period for labelling eggs as free range if farmers are ordered to keep their birds indoors, risking British growers being left behind. 

Dr Neil Hudson, Tory MP for Penrith and The Border, compared the current situation to the foot and mouth crisis of the early 2000s, when he was working as vet. 

Some supermarkets recently ran out of eggs, while others have rationed supply due to the knock-on effects of bird flu. Pictured: Empty egg shelves in a Lidl store in Loughborough, Leicestershire on November 17

Free range eggs will run out of stock by March as Britain’s poultry industry is hit by the worst avian influenza outbreak on record, MPs have warned 

The UK is in the grips of an avian flu crisis, with nearly 4million birds killed, supermarket shelves empty of eggs and Christmas turkey shortages expected. Pictured: Map showing protection zones (blue circles) where cases have been spotted in captive birds and active measures are in place to prevent further spread, yellow circles show a 10km surveillance zone for bird flu where slightly less restrictive measures are in place

A record number of bird flu cases were confirmed across England, Scotland and Wales last winter. The graph shows the prevalence of bird flu in the UK from 2006 to 2022, including cases (red line), deaths among the animal due to the virus (green) and the number that have been culled over concerns about bird flu (blue)

He said: ‘I saw things then that I never want to witness again in my lifetime and I think people on the frontline are seeing similar things.

‘At what point will the Government act to say we are in exceptional market conditions?

‘There are discussions at EU level that actually if the state vets say they need to be kept indoors then the free range status can be carried on longer.

‘So I think the UK needs to be cognizant of that and make preparations to make sure our farmers are on a level playing field.’

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), however, has down played the influenza’s impact on the egg industry. 

Defra minister Mark Spencer, MP for Sherwood, admitted there was a ‘tightening’ of the egg sector but said other external factors were at play, insisting the UK supply chain was ‘resilient’.

Christmas turkey shortage fear: Bird flu crisis wipes out half of our free-range stock

The total UK production of turkeys is around nine million birds for Christmas. More than a million have recently been culled or died from bird flu 

Fears are growing of ‘big, big shortages’ of turkeys at Christmas amid the bird flu crisis.

The stark warning from industry chiefs came as it emerged half of free-range birds had been wiped out or culled because of the disease.

Describing it as ‘the worst bird-flu outbreak we have ever seen’, they told MPs that there is a real risk of gaps on shelves this festive season.

Some farmers, they said, had lost their entire flocks of thousands of turkeys, geese and ducks in just days. 

Although supermarkets are expected to turn to imports from countries such as Poland, it is understood that the price of these has more than doubled. 

Details of the crisis were laid bare at an inquiry by the Commons food and farming committee, Efra, which is investigating the impact of bird flu on farmers.

The Government recently ordered all poultry and captive birds in England to be kept indoors because of the disease.

Chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, told the committee: ‘This year is the worst bird flu outbreak that we have seen, ever.

The Government recently ordered all poultry and captive birds in England to be kept indoors because of the disease. Pictured: Turkeys in an indoor barn in Cheshire

‘The usual number of free-range turkeys for Christmas is about 1.2 million to 1.3 million. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds being directly affected. Half of free range.

‘The total UK production of turkeys is 8.5 million to nine million birds for Christmas. Of those that are Christmas birds, probably just over a million have been culled or died from bird flu.’

Asked about the impact on prices of the loss of the birds, and the need for stores to turn to imports to make up the shortfall, he said: ‘That is a question for retailers. We do not know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled.’

He added: ‘We have 38million laying hens across the country and avian flu is not having an impact on the overall supply with only 2 percent of the national flock having died or been culled due to avian flu.

‘The disruption to the supply of eggs we’ve seen recently is mainly due to commercial decisions businesses are taking as a result of rising costs of feed and energy over the past year mainly caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.’

Lidl told MailOnline today that it has rationing in place ‘to ensure supply for all’, with the limit currently being three boxes per customer.  

But it is not just hens affected by the outbreak, as Sir John Whittingdale, Conservative MP for Maldon, warned of other species facing annihilation. 

Mr Whittingdale, who tabled yesterday’s debate, said guillemots, kittiwakes and barnacle geese ‘are dying at such numbers it’s actually putting at risk those species in this country’.

‘We face an existential threat, and we need a clear plan,’ he said, as he called for people who raise their own hens to face the same rules as farms and other big businesses. 

He added: ‘They are equally at risk and equally likely to spread and they need to be more visible to the regulators.’

It came as MPs demanded changes to how compensation is awarded to farmers who have lost livestock due to the influenza outbreak. 

They called for business owners to be allowed to restock sooner, as they must currently wait for 12 months after the disease is detected on their farm. 

Richard Foord MP, the Liberal Democrat representative for Tiverton and Honiton, said the period should be reduced to six months to avoid ‘shortages lasting well over a year, especially in seasonal Christmas turkey market’. 

Meanwhile, farmers are only paid compensation for the birds that are actually culled, not the ones who die naturally from the influenza. 

Sir John cited the example of Kelly Turkeys, based on a farm near Chelmsford, which called government vets on a Thursday, but had lost 9,800 of their 10,000-strong flock by the time they arrived on Monday. 

It meant they were only paid compensation for the 200 remaining birds that were culled. 

 Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys, a hatchery in Essex, said: ‘It has been devastating. As a hatchery business we supply farmers throughout the country, so I get first-hand experience of when they get an infected premises. 

‘The challenge for a lot of the smaller seasonal producers is they have their Christmas flock on their farm and when they are infected they all die within four days.

‘At the moment, small independent seasonal producers are being wiped out.’

He added: ‘There will be a big, big shortage of British free range turkeys on shelves. Spot prices for imported turkey have doubled. Northern Europe has suffered the same problem as we have.’

There are fears many turkey farmers will give up as they don’t want to risk being hit by further outbreaks in future years.

Industry leaders say they need an improved compensation scheme to cover losses and say the future of the industry relies on the development of a vaccine.

Mr Kelly said: ‘We are a small business and we have lost £1.2million. Luckily we are going to get through this year. Going into next year, I don’t want to put the farm at risk. Without a vaccine or compensation scheme that is fit for purpose, I don’t know whether a lot of producers will grow Christmas turkeys next year.’

The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, told MPs it was the first time the virus had survived in the wild bird population from one winter through the summer to the following winter.

She added: ‘This strain is very infectious…

‘A teaspoon full of infectious material can create thousands of infectious doses. It has been devastating.’

The current influenza situation was triggered by a record number of bird flu cases across England, Scotland and Wales last winter. 

Despite levels usually falling in the summer, they continued to rise.

Scientists think the virus has mutated in a way that makes it tougher — and survive longer in the environment on surfaces or in water — although further research is needed.

Some supermarket branches, including Sainsbury’s and Lidl, have run out of eggs, while others, such as Tesco and Asda, have rationed supply. Unions have warned that the shortages could last until next summer.

Farmers have blamed supply chain disruption due to the outbreak, as well as the inflation crisis forcing some out of the market.

And farmers warned that 3.5million turkeys — nearly a third of the country’s production — had already been culled by the start of the month, threatening the supply of Christmas dinner.

In response to the bird flu outbreak, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ordered birdkeepers to house their flocks indoors from November 7.

A sign in Kensington Gardens warning people not to feed ducks due to bird flu risk

Pictured: Empty egg shelves in a Tesco store in Ashford, Kent on November 22

The so-called Avian Influenza Prevention Zone — which applies to pet birds, commercial flocks or a small backyard flock — also means it is a legal requirement to follow strict biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of the virus. 

These include restricting access for non-essential people to where birds are kept to minimise the risk of cross-contamination from manure and other products. 

Bird owners should also log the movements, deaths and any changes in production among their flock. 

Clothing and footwear should be changed before entering enclosures and vehicles should be regularly cleaned and disinfected, Defra said.

If birds show signs of going off their food or water, or show ‘respiratory or neurological’ signs of infection, owners should contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency or their own private vet, who would then alert the authorities.

The UK Health Security Agency said the viruses poses a ‘very low’ risk to public health.

The Food Standards Agency advised that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. Properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat, it said.

In rare cases, bird flu can infect humans if they touch infected birds, their droppings or bedding. Its symptoms include a fever, aching muscles and headache. The currently circulating strain is thought to kill 53 per cent of those it infects.

Bird flu outbreak: Everything you need to know 

What is it? 

Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.

In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or alive infected bird.

This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also catch bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry for eating. 

Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.

As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.

New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl, including plovers, godwits and ducks, head off to Alaska to breed and mix with various migratory birds from the Americas. Others go west and infect European species.

What strain is currently spreading? 


So far the new virus has been killed 97million birds and poultry globally and 3.8million in the UK since September 2021.

The unprecedented level of deaths had led some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.

Can it infect people? 

Yes, but just 864 people have been infected with H5N1 globally since 2003 from 20 countries.

The risk to people has been deemed ‘very low’.

But people are strongly urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 53 per cent of people it does manage to infect.

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