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Fears grow over free-range chicken and eggs

UK farming unions have urged the EU to extend the 12-week free-range status of poultry as confusion and concern builds in the face of the bird flu outbreak.

The H5N8 strain of the disease has so far been confirmed at a commercial game farm in Lancashire, as well as three separate poultry farms in Lincolnshire and in backyard flocks in North Yorkshire and Carmarthenshire. However, a prevention zone is in force across the UK, which means that both commercial and backyard flocks have to be kept inside or separate from wild birds.

Farmers are growing increasingly concerned that the compulsory housing order could soon impact the free-range status of their birds. The order has been extended until 28th February, at which point birds will have been kept indoors for 12 weeks – beyond that EU law stipulates that eggs and meat will no longer be classed as free-range and will instead have to be labelled barn-reared.

“The UK market will, without doubt, be one of the most affected countries as a result of bird flu, due to half of our national flock being free-range, by far the highest percentage of any member state,” the unions warned in a joint statement. Losses could reportedly run into millions of pounds.

The four UK unions want MEPs and EU decision-makers to extend the 12-week period on free-range status “until the risk has subsided to previous levels”. Similar lobbying is going on across the bloc. The other option is to lift the protection zone at the end of the month and maintain high levels of enhanced biosecurity. This is thought to be far more complicated.

Demand for eggs has been rocketing in recent months as consumers turn to them as an alternative source of protein. Free-range currently has a 48% share of the total UK market, according to Defra data for the year to September 2016. Foodservice accounts for 23% of UK’s total egg market (12.5 billion eggs).