By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
Unfortunately, Avian Influenza has reared its ugly head in the UK once again. Outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain continue to affect commercial and non-commercial flocks, captive birds and wild birds. Worryingly, the AI virus this ‘AI season’ is here some 2-3 weeks earlier than last year. This has already led to stage one of an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone being put in place across GB and then Northern Ireland, which legally mandates biosecurity. This has been escalated to stage two of the AIPZ which is a UK-wide requirement to house flocks from 29 November.
Also of concern is that, at the time of writing, we have had four free range sites that have been infected, which is rather different to what we have seen in past, when most cases were in housed flocks. Notwithstanding that by the very definition of free range, full biosecurity cannot be provided, producers must do all they can and further raise the level of biosecurity still further. The joint poultry industry/government workshop held on 13 September provided some very useful pointers to help producers understand the risk pathways to avoid similar occurrences and we would urge you to view the recording of, and presentations made, at the event.
For our 26 million free range birds, a requirement to house has started the 16-week legislative clock to tick, which ends at 00:01 hours on 21 March 2022. If free-range flocks are not outside by then, eggs will need to be marketed as barn. Whilst we have long made our voice heard in government that we should not house until mid-December at the earliest to avoid exceeding 16-weeks the following spring, due to the infection pressure in wild birds at this time and the number of positive poultry cases, we fully support the decision to bring flocks inside following the rapid risk assessment completed by Defra/APHA. BEIC has written to George Eustice MP, Secretary of State at Defra, to seek a solution to avoid exceeding the 16-week period, as the measures we put in place in 2017 cannot be easily repeated. We are therefore looking for a practical solution, both for March 2022 and for the longer term, particularly with the knowledge that the AI threat is now considered to be over a 30-week period. It is in all our best interest, that of retailers and others to work together to both protect our birds at the same time as ensuring the economic viability of the industry.
As no one can predict what the infection pressure in wild birds will look like next March, which means that we won’t know whether the housing order can be lifted, BEIC is actively reviewing all options, just in case. We are also mindful that Covid-19 restrictions on businesses and the labour availability crisis, as a direct result of UK government migration policy, will play a part as we seek the most sensible solution.
In other news, the annual Egg & Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) took place in November. The conference was held virtually, rather than in its usual home of Newport, South Wales. The conference held a panel discussion on the role of poultry in future planetary health, chaired by NFU president Minette Batters. It was a thought-provoking discussion that covered the role of both eggs and poultry, in the future of animal protein production, particularly in the face of an aggressive vegan-driven, artificial, and heavy processed plant-based meat alternatives, driven by big global corporations to maximise profits rather than providing a healthy and sustainable diet.