By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
Sadly, our sector is dealing with the consequences of Avian Influenza (AI), the largest number of outbreaks we have experienced yet.
At the time of writing, we have more than 70 outbreaks in commercial, non-commercial, captive birds and backyard flocks. The H5N1 HPAI virus causing considerable disruption, not only to those directly affected, but others being hit by the disease control zones, contact tracings, and the impact on exports.
It must be said that despite all this, the media coverage has been responsible, making it clear that there is no link between AI and COVID-19, and that the risk to human health is low, but to of course practice all biosecurity measures necessary if coming in suspected content with infected birds.
This AI season is worse than those that have come before, and we do not have all the answers as to why, but it is something we are assessing as an industry, along with government veterinary officials and other scientific experts. This strain has a swift mortality rate in affected flocks of Gallus gallus. We do know that the virus is not windborne, and it is possible that dust particles carried via wind plumes may be to blame. However, the most important thing we can do is to always maintain the highest levels of biosecurity, and everyone in the industry must revaluate their procedures, and consider what further measures they could put in place to fight the spread.
Our planning, if flocks may continue to need to be housed after the 16-week derogation period for free range expires on 21 March 2022, continues. We are working closely with the British Retail Consortium, government, and others to find a pragmatic solution should the need arise. The BEIC will update the industry on further developments in due course.
We are making the case to government that the current system for compensation is unfair to the poultry sector, where only healthy birds, at the time of culling are paid for. This virus shows that if there is any delay in culling, it can result in fewer birds alive, and less compensation. Another aspect of this is the so called ‘rate cards’; we have asked that ADAS update these every four to six weeks instead of the current 13 weeks. This will at least mean that there are fewer producers penalised should their flock be culled out just before the next review.
Last month I encouraged readers to view the recordings of the joint poultry industry-government workshop that took place on 13 September, which provides detailed information on how to understand the risk pathways. I would like to take this opportunity to urge those who have yet to do so to watch the presentations.
On the labour front, we fear that the issue may worsen, due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 if restrictions make it more difficult for migrants to enter the UK, or indeed if the number of cases rises so exponentially that it may lead to another ‘pingdemic’ resulting in huge numbers of workers self-isolating. This is an acute risk given how this strain is seemingly much more contagious, and that the self-isolation period for testing positive is 10 days.
The BEIC has been engaging with the UK Government, and devolved governments, on the importance of devising a reasonable, and practical policy regarding COVID-19 exposure and self-isolation, to keep supply chains moving. The government must do all it can to avoid such a situation and devise a realistic policy that balances public health and economic reality.
Finally, the BEIC responded to Defra’s Call for Evidence on Labelling for Animal Welfare, where we have said that the BEIC believes that clear and accurate labelling is in the interests of both the consumer and the industry, allowing consumers to make informed choices. The UK Government has set out on a journey to sign as many free agreements as possible, despite talking up animal welfare standards at home, this has not translated into their trade negotiation strategy. This must be addressed urgently before any proposals are made to reform domestic labelling requirements. It is not only important, but desirable to inform consumers in a consistent way on all products, including imports. The UK does not apply most of its animal welfare standards to imports, which we find wholly unjust. Mandatory labelling of egg products would provide incentives for retailers, consumers, and hopefully encourage the UK government to marry trade policy with animal welfare ambitions.
British egg processors launched a petition ‘Supermarkets should use British eggs for foods made in Britain and stop importing eggs, that currently has collected over 35,000 signatures, which demonstrates the strength of the public on these kinds of issues.