By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
Throughout the last few years, the British egg industry has faced unprecedented challenges caused by avian influenza, and as if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has increased grain prices to almost unbearable levels for many businesses. The sanctions placed on Russia have pushed up the price of natural gas too, which much of Europe is dependent upon. These events have placed a back-breaking strain on the margins of farming businesses, many have decided they can no longer function and see no future, closing operations.
A Round Table hosted by the Minister of State at Defra brought together all elements of the supply chain to discuss the current egg supply issues, causes and what can be done to overcome the problem. The BEIC made it clear that the supply chain must benefit all parts within it and went into detail on how to improve the productivity and efficiency of operations. Without this, future investment in the industry simply will not happen.
The BEIC has asked government to meet insurance underwriters to provide assurance then when a site becomes infected with AI, government will ensure that birds are culled without undue delay, which hasn’t always been the case recently. We appreciate the APHA are under significant pressure, it was taking many days to cull during October and November, which resulted in birds dying from AI. This in turn meant that the government much less compensation, with the private insurance sector stepping in to bridge the shortfall.
Furthermore, the current compensation scheme is not fit for purpose. Government has agreed to assess for compensation at the start of culling, as opposed to the end, but this is not far enough. It is unjust that the poultry sector is only compensated for healthy birds, delays in APHA culling in an infected premises means a larger number of birds die of the disease. The issue of AI is also of significant concern to many backbench MPs, having held a debate on the AI outbreak, the causes, the problems it has created, along with solutions – including vaccination. We engaged with MPs to ensure the points of concern for our sector were raised.
The threat of AI is not going away, what we must do is look at how we deal with it in the future. The BEIC firmly believes that vaccination will be the best tool in the box when it comes to combating the disease. We are pleased to see this is being taken forward with Defra creating a Task Force with the inclusion of industry. However, vaccination will not come without challenges, we need a range of effective vaccines which can be easily administered, with a proper cost-effective surveillance programme in place, which will serve to avoid trade barriers, which is by far the largest barrier to vaccination. A crucial point is that vaccination can never be a substitute for good biosecurity, which must always come first. The newly amended Lion Code biosecurity standards are now bedded in and are aimed at strengthening a site’s defences against AI.
On international trade, the BEIC will continue to engage with government and relevant stakeholders, monitor and assess any potential threats and opportunities for our sector and engage with our members accordingly, where and when necessary. We will vigorously defend the British egg industry at every opportunity, should there be a threat of imports of eggs/egg products from hens kept in sub-UK standard animal welfare conditions, undermining our farmers, and betraying our consumers.
Regardless of the AI situation, other challenges also await the industry in 2023, this includes the labour availability crisis. I cannot promise that 2023 will provide the industry with the much-needed respite it deserves. However, the egg industry is resilient, has been built without government financial support, and is fully responsive to customer/ consumer demand, which will stand it in good stead.