THE UK Government is proposing that eggs laid by chickens kept indoors due to concerns about bird flu should be labelled “free range” regardless of how long they are kept from roaming outdoors.

The current rules mean that when mandatory housing measures are introduced as a result of avian influenza concerns, free range egg producers are permitted to continue labelling their products “free range” for 16 weeks.

Once this “derogation” period ends they must then switch to labelling their eggs as “barn eggs”.

However, the UK Government is proposing to remove this derogation period in England and Scotland, allowing eggs to be labelled free range for the entirety of a mandatory housing order. 

During both 2021/22 and 2022/23 the 16 week derogation period was exceeded, forcing producers to spend money to change packaging.

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Farming Minister Mark Spencer said: “We understand the pressures bird flu outbreaks place on our poultry and egg producers, which is why we continue to prioritise ways to support the industry during outbreaks of this disease.

“I encourage all those with an interest to take part in this consultation to ensure that our free-range industry continues to thrive in years to come.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 has devastated populations of wild birds in Scotland and across the UK.

Last year, up to 5000 barnacle geese died of the disease in Islay and many other species have tested positive – including buzzards, hen harriers, and golden eagles.

If the disease makes its way into domestic flocks it can devastate populations within days. Once detected by farmers any surviving birds are then subject to a cull.

The National: Thousands of Scottish seabirds have died during the latest outbreak of avian influenzaThousands of Scottish seabirds have died during the latest outbreak of avian influenza

Poultry policy manager for the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Penny Middleton, said scrapping the derogation period would remove uncertainty for farmers.

She told The National: “We have been waiting ages for this consultation and have called on it for years now.

“Hopefully we are coming into better times regarding bird flu, but there will always be a risk. It is suggested there will be peaks and troughs as to how much it will impact each year but it will be good to have this sorted out and remove one uncertainty around calling housing orders too early.”

But animal rights charity PETA UK said the change exposed issues associated with how products are labelled according to welfare standards. 

The National: A picture showing conditions on a Happy Egg Company facility A picture showing conditions on a Happy Egg Company facility (Image: PETA UK)

Vice president of programmes at PETA UK, Elisa Allen, told The National: "This proposal demonstrates how welfare labels are a fraud, designed for human convenience, and do not protect animals from suffering.

"Even when there is no avian flu outbreak – a condition caused by this industry that seeks to avoid all regulation – investigations show that hens used for misleadingly named 'free range' eggs are crammed into filthy, stinking sheds where they’re denied fresh air and natural light.

"Consumers should know that on free-range farms, male chicks are suffocated or ground up alive because the egg industry has no use for them and hens’ sensitive beaks are mutilated without pain relief.

The National: A hen in a Happy Egg Company facility A hen in a Happy Egg Company facility (Image: PETA UK)

"The only label that can be trusted to be cruelty-free is one that reads 'vegan'." 

It comes after a recent investigation by PETA UK into the Happy Egg Company - one of the UK's largest producers of free range eggs - which found chickens "crammed" into indoor facilities with dead chickens "left to rot among the living". 

A public consultation on the proposal will run until March 5.