Why did free range eggs disappear from supermarkets? Bird flu outbreak and chicken lockdown explained

A severe avian flu outbreak meant birds across the UK had to be kept indoors over the winter under a Covid-style lockdown

<p>British free range eggs were off the menu for more than a month (image: AFP/Getty Images)</p>

British free range eggs were off the menu for more than a month (image: AFP/Getty Images)

The UK has also been battling what the government has described as the UK’s “largest ever” bird flu pandemic since last autumn.

While this has only infected one human, the disease has been disastrous for eggs and poultry farmers - with free range eggs disappearing from supermarket shelves and the government revealing more than 2.3 million birds have had to be culled.

Hundreds of millions of chickens, turkeys and ducks also had to be kept indoors for several months from November 2021.

But light appears to be at the end of the tunnel, as the government has lifted some of the restrictions.

Free range chickens cannot be marketed as ‘free range’ if they are kept indoors for more than 16 consecutive weeks (image: Getty Images)

So, why is bird flu such an issue - and when can we expect free range eggs to make a comeback?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Why is bird flu an issue?

Every winter, the UK is at risk of bird flu because Great Britain and Ireland sit close to a key migratory route for wild birds from Scandinavia and Northern Russia who often carry the disease.

Sometimes, the bird flu that develops among these birds and is brought over to the UK is highly pathogenic - meaning it is more likely to kill its host.

When this happens, the UK’s chief veterinary officers typically bring in measures - like an avian influenza protection zone - that are intended to lower the chance of bird flu getting into commercial eggs and poultry (key sources of food in the UK).

Wild birds often carry and spread bird flu around the UK (image: Getty Images)

However, tougher measures like housing restrictions (essentially bird lockdowns that make it illegal for birdkeepers or farmers to let their birds leave their barns) have to be brought in when the virus is found to be spreading widely.

Such measures had to be introduced in late November 2021 as the UK sought to tackle what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) labelled the “largest ever” outbreak of avian flu in the country on record.

Why were there no free range eggs in supermarkets?

Bird housing restrictions are bad news for all bird keepers because they require flocks to be kept locked inside barns for long periods - a measure that’s detrimental to birds’ health and wellbeing.

But it’s especially bad for free range egg farmers who have to let their birds outside in order for their eggs to be classed as ‘free range’.

Because bird flu housing restrictions lasted for more than 16 consecutive weeks, free range producers could no longer legally label their eggs as ‘free range’.

So, from 21 March, they had to be labelled as ‘barn eggs’ instead - a lower animal welfare classification.

Retailers have been communicating this change to consumers.

When did free range eggs return to supermarkets?

New cases of avian flu are still being recorded but appear to be becoming less frequent.

Wild migrating birds that brought the virus to the UK have been leaving the country in March and April - reducing “infection pressure” according to DEFRA.

Meanwhile, the greater amount of sunshine and heat the UK is getting as spring sets in has made the virus inactive, the government says.

Free range eggs are a key source of food in the UK (image: AFP/Getty Images)

On 25 April, DEFRA announced it housing restrictions would be lifted on 2 May.

It means birds are now able to roam free and the products coming from them will be able to be labelled as free-range again.

The UK-wide Avian Influenza Prevention Zone remains in place, while prevention zones around infection sites will see birds in the area be forced to remain indoors.

All four of the UK’s chief vets called on bird keepers to continue to follow “scrupulous biosecurity” measures.

Free range chicken and eggs will be returning to supermarket shelves in May (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Why could there still be free range egg shortages?

While welcoming the news the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) said the industry is still at “breaking point” due to soaring production costs.

“While it’s a relief to my members, lifting the housing order does not solve the crisis facing the egg sector,” said BFREPA CEO Robert Gooch.

“The picture is bleak – a recent survey of our members suggested 51% of free range and organic egg farmers were considering exiting the industry.

“Even a small number coming out of egg production would lead to egg shortages which we predict will come later this year.”

BFREPA says it’s not being helped by supermarkets and revealed it has asked them to increase the price of free range eggs by at least 40p per dozen, or 80p if they’re organic, to help with rising costs for energy, feed and transport.

But the British Retail Consortium, which represents most major UK retailers, said: “Supermarkets source most of their food from the UK and know they need to pay a sustainable price to farmers but are constrained by how much additional cost they can pass onto consumers in this very difficult market.”