By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
It continues to be a busy time in the egg sector, not least given that the poultry conference season is well and truly upon us. An opportunity to present at the recent Egg and Poultry Industry Conference, where the focus was on food security and the egg sector’s place in a sustainable supply chain, provided an excellent opportunity to reference our high standards of food safety through the British Lion Quality scheme as well as the challenges around AI and international trade. As an example of sustainability in terms of adapting to consumer demand, I highlighted how the sector has changed over 25 years. In 1999, cage was the dominant system with 79% of production and free range 16%. Fast forward to 2022 with 28% of eggs produced in enriched colony cages and free range the dominant sector with 61% of production – a remarkable tribute to how producers have reacted to consumer demand and, at the same time, giving consumers a wide choice of eggs from various production systems.
Following EPIC, the BFREPA conference was held at an excellent new venue in Telford. In contrast to last year, the mood at the Conference was positive, albeit there was a lot of discussion around the recently published new RSPCA Assured laying hen standards. In response to these standards, we wrote a joint industry letter with BFREPA outlining “our significant and serious concerns” and requesting “an urgent meeting with the senior management of RSPCA Assured to seek clarification and agree a way forward to protect our producers and their livelihoods, ensure the continued viability of the sector, whilst always looking after bird welfare”.
I am pleased to report that we hosted an industry meeting at the BEIC offices on 20 November which was well attended by a number of producers, packers and egg sector trade associations. We outlined the significant strength of feeling felt across the sector toward the new standards as well as our concerns around the impact that this would have on producers and the viability of the sector. Specifically, we talked about the significant cost of installing windows (for natural daylight) and the impact on managing the birds, as well as the cost and practicalities around the provision of verandas. We also asked for the science and evidence that underpinned these two standards. It was agreed that the RSPCA / RSPCA Assured would discuss these concerns internally and respond back to us, in the coming weeks.
On a positive note, the Lion Code, and the standard around a written veterinary health and welfare plan which is reviewed on site, has recently been recognised by government as meeting the EU requirements for exports from GB into Northern Ireland (as part of the Windsor Framework). The EU Animal Health Regulation requires livestock farms to have a veterinary health visit undertaken by a vet, unless the site is part of an assurance scheme. This earned recognition will be tremendously helpful and save cost for industry.
Continuing the positive news, it was encouraging to see in the data that we collate for the BEIC market report that the number of layer chicks placed in the UK from UK hatcheries increased significantly in the month of October to over 4 million – the first time this has happened for several years. In part this is a reflection of a five-week month, nonetheless it is also a reflection of perhaps growing confidence in the sector which, albeit still fragile, is very welcome as supply is still an ongoing challenge.
No report at this time of year can go by without a mention of AI. At the time of writing – and not wishing to tempt fate – we have only seen two cases of AI since the start of the new AI ‘season’ on 1st October and one of those in a non-commercial flock. We sincerely hope that this situation continues and need to do what we can to reduce the risk to the commercial poultry sector by continuing to operate high standards of farm biosecurity. Cases across Europe are however increasing and so there is no room for complacency.
Discussions with Defra around AI vaccination continues at pace. The Joint Industry/ Government AI Vaccination Task Force continues to meet regularly to look at the challenges around AI vaccination with particular reference to choice, ease of administration, cost effective surveillance and avoiding trade barriers. The vaccine suppliers have been engaged with as part of the process. In the EU, France is in the process of vaccinating all of their ducks, except breeding stock and ducks for export, with the French government picking up 85% of the costs. The French decision however has impacted on duck product exports to the USA. Trial work is being undertaken in Italy (turkeys) and the Netherlands (laying hens). One of the major obstacles in the UK is the cost of surveillance which needs to be significantly lower if vaccination were to be a commercially viable option going forward. The Task Force is shortly to send a report of their findings to the government’s Animal Disease Policy Group for their consideration. If Defra and the devolved governments approve vaccination it is unlikely to be available until the second half of 2024 at the earliest.
Continuing the AI theme, we are still, at the time of writing frustratingly awaiting Defra’s publication of the consultation on the 16-week FR derogation period. In the EU the 16-week derogation limit has been removed, meaning that free range flocks retain their free-range marketing status irrespective of how long the hens are housed provided that it continues to be an order from the respective member state’s Chief Veterinary Officer. This is very relevant as the scenario could come about this winter that, in the event that we have a housing order and it exceeds the current 16-week derogation, we are required to market our eggs as ‘barn’. However, EU free range egg, which has gone beyond the 16-weeks, can continue to be marketed as free range even though birds continue to be housed. I am sure that you would agree that this is far from an equitable situation and could be a risk to the UK egg sector.
On the political front, congratulations to The Rt Hon Stephen Barclay MP on his recent appointment as Secretary of State at Defra. BEIC has written a letter of congratulations and concluded “we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss your portfolio”. Certainly, there is a lot that we would like to raise with the Secretary of State.
Finally, on 6 December I will retire from my role as Chief Executive and move to the position as Chairman of the BEIC, working two days a week. I have enjoyed every minute of the last 24 years, dealing with the many challenges and opportunities that our industry has faced. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and the BEIC. To the younger generation entering our industry I would say that you have come to the best sector of British agriculture – take the opportunities and you won’t regret it. My colleague, Gary Ford will take on the Chief Executive’s role and will contribute to future editions.