By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
The requirement to house poultry flocks in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland was lifted on 18 April, meaning that poultry flocks could return to range again. This was much welcome news for the British egg industry. The exception being that any site caught within the 3km Protection Zone or 3km Captive Bird Controlled Zone, must continue to be housed. Many of these zones have already been lifted, with more expected in the coming days and weeks, providing it has been decided safe to do so.
Some producers have questioned the lifting of the housing order as being premature, however, we must be guided by risk assessments conducted by Defra, Welsh Government, and DAERA. These assessments have led to the reduction in risk of Avian Influenza from ‘very high’ to ‘high’ in wild birds, in poultry with good biosecurity from ‘medium’ to ‘low’, and for poultry with substantial biosecurity breaches or poor biosecurity, from ‘high’ to ‘medium’.
By the time of publication, the BEIC labelling solution, put in place across the UK in February, will have been fully withdrawn allowing free range eggs to again be marked on farm with the ‘1UK’ producer establishment number and packs to again be marketed as free range. It is unfortunate, although not unexpected, that we have seen three cases of HPAI since 18 April, which underlines the continuing importance of maintaining high standards of biosecurity – HPAI has not gone away. The lifting of Protection Zones and Surveillance Zones also continues apace which is welcome news.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Eggs, Pigs and Poultry, that the BEIC holds the Secretariat for, is to organise a panel discussion in Westminster, where discussion will focus on exotic diseases such as AI and African Swine Fever, as well as the potential for new or emerging animal disease outbreaks. This event will bring together industry representatives with knowledge from across the egg, pig and poultry sectors to discuss how the Government would manage an outbreak of animal disease in the UK. The recommendations will be presented to Government and officials, as well as disseminated among the industry in due course.
Moving onto EU egg marketing standards, back in August 2022, the European Commission proposed a revision which included removing the 16-week limit, whereby eggs from free range flocks can continue to be marketed as ‘free range’ when flocks are required to be housed by a government veterinary restriction (such as a housing order). This outbreak of AI has been so severe that across the EU multiple member-states have exceeded the 16-week derogation period. This, along with other proposed amendments to the egg marketing legislation are supposed to modernise the current egg marketing standards, aligning them with the Lisbon Treaty requirements, also part of the “Farm to Fork Strategy”. The public consultation opened on 21 April and will close on 19th May. In the preamble of the proposal, it: “aligns rules on ‘free range’ marking to those applicable for organic eggs when laying hens are prevented access to open air runs on the basis of Union legislation”.
It is expected that the revised marketing standards will be approved by the European Parliament during September/October 2023. Whilst it is noted that the European Parliament can extend the scrutiny period by two months, it is hoped this will not be necessary. It is intended that the amended marketing standards will be published before the end of the year. BEIC has been pressing Defra and the devolved administrations to amend domestic legislation at the same time. Government appreciates the importance of this to our sector.
On the international trade front and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement including 11 members: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, BEIC is bitterly disappointed that the UK Government has not included eggs and egg products as ‘sensitive’. We have provided government ministers and officials with all the economic and bird welfare evidence possible over recent years to justify ‘sensitive product status’. This economic evidence alone should have acted as a strong rationale for retaining import tariffs on eggs and egg products, given that, for example, Mexico continues to operate conventional cage systems. Furthermore, given this Government’s emphasis on animal welfare and farming standards, that they have opened the door to products that would be illegal to produce in the UK does not make sense. This not only breaks commitments in the Conservative Party’s own General Election manifesto, but it is a betrayal of farmers and all the animal welfare organisations that the Government said it would listen to on matters of farming and trade. There will now be further progression of the agreement towards ratification in parliament. The plan is to bring the deal into force later this year.
The Government has been incredibly naïve in thinking that just because Mexico does not currently export egg products to the UK that they are not a threat. Our concerns lie with future trade. The UK’s chief negotiator stated that the UK would seek to look to the UK bilateral trade deal with Mexico to enhance animal welfare standards and encourage a wider take up of standards. We can only be sceptical of the chances for progress as Mexico is a 99% conventional cage industry. This does not set a good precedent in terms of the Government’s supposed commitment to animal welfare for future trade negotiations.