By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
There is a mixed picture to report in terms of Avian Influenza (AI). While cases of H5N1 HPAI are still being detected, these are a lesser rate than those in October and November last year. At the time of writing this, we stand at 174 cases across Great Britain, and one case in Northern Ireland. These numbers are far worse than previous outbreaks, however, the good news is that the second wave that was expected, has not yet developed. The British egg industry has lost many birds due to either AI or culling. When combined with high input costs such as energy, and feed, as well as labour availability, the overall picture has been more than challenging.
Therefore, it is positive that the risk level in wild birds has been reduced from Very High, and in poultry with good biosecurity from Medium to Low. Hopefully, poultry with imperfect biosecurity levels will also be reduced in time, and the Housing Order element of the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) removed by mid-April. However, until then biosecurity measures must remain high, and it is vital that no one should be under the illusion that the threat from AI is over.
We have asked the UK Government to lift the Housing Order element of the AIPZ that was implemented in England, while the respective orders are lifted in Wales and Northern Ireland, to ensure a smooth transition of the labelling solution that we had in place for labelling eggs as free range.
The BEIC continues to play a role in the AI vaccination task force that continues to meet regularly. These meetings go through every possible aspect of vaccination, and they are discussed fully with different facets of the industry and other relevant stakeholders. We are currently assessing the costs associated with surveillance that will be required of any flock that is vaccinated, based on the EU delegated regulation. This is on the basis that we cannot digress much from what the EU requires, otherwise trade barriers could be put in place on our exports of breeding stock and poultry meat.
Moving onto politics and the Windsor Framework Agreement, which both the UK and EU formally ratified a couple of weeks ago. Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss hoped to rally a Brexiteer revolt against Rishi Sunak, however, he was able to see this off comfortably. The agreement was approved in the House of Commons by 515 votes, with only 29 votes against. Labour had already said it would support the Government, so realistically there was no chance of the vote not passing. The DUP voted against the agreement, along with just 22 Conservative MPs. The Conservatives no longer seem interested in fighting another Brexit-inspired civil war but are seemingly united about putting the issue behind them – given a General Election is a matter of months away, it is important they do so.
The BEIC is cautiously optimistic and welcomes the deal with the EU and the prospects it brings for trade in agri-food products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A deal that will replace the Northern Ireland Protocol and help remove trade friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is welcome. From what we can interpret from the information contained within the Windsor Framework, there is no change regarding the administrative burden on moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and an Export Health Certificate will still be required. The changes relate to retail products, if destined only for the market in Northern Ireland via the proposed ‘green lane’. However, there is no improvement for ‘egg for processing’ movement. A streamlining of the paperwork is required to move goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland which would reduce costs for our industry. This is particularly important at a time when so many input costs are so high, they are rendering many businesses unviable.