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The 'free range' eggs you've been eating for the past two months haven't actually been free range

If the chickens remain inside after the deadline their produce can not be sold as free range Credit: PA

The "free range" eggs you've been eating for the last nine weeks haven't really been free range at all.

British-farmed chickens have been cooped up in barns since last December under emergency Government measures to prevent the spread of bird flu.

The status of free-range eggs and meats is protected by a 12-week grace period under EU laws meaning the produce can still technically be sold as "free-range".

But if the chickens remain inside after February 27 their eggs will be re-labelled and sold for up to a fifth cheaper.

The National Farmers Union has warned the move could cause customers to become "very confused" amid a growing demand for free range products.

There are fears the move could cause confusion among egg buyers Credit: PA

However that is set to change - with the Department for Economic, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announcing plans to scale back the housing order just in time for the deadline day.

It means about 75% of free range flocks will be released back into the great outdoors.

The remaining quarter are in areas considered to be high risk for the spread of bird flu, meaning farmers have two options.

They can either keep the birds cooped up inside and lose their free range status or install expensive netting among a range of other bio-security procedures.

Three quarters of free range flocks will be released back into the great outdoors under the proposals Credit: PA

The tough measures have been introduced in a bid to quell the spread of avian flu - which is highly contagious among poultry and can quickly wipe out entire farms.

The aim is to keep out wild birds - particularly ducks - that can quickly spread the virus strain while foraging on farms.

Last Monday, a farmer was forced to cull 63,000 chickens after an outbreak of the disease in Lancashire.

A three kilometre protection zone is set up around affected premises with surveillance carried out for a further seven kilometres.

However, the Food Standards Agency has said bird flu “does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers”.

Industry leaders have reassured customers that farmers are still applying high welfare standards Credit: PA

Speaking to ITV News, Aimee Mahony from the NFU reassured customers who may be concerned about the welfare of chickens while they are kept indoors.

She said: "We haven't had any battery cages in the UK since 2012 when the practice was banned.

"While the housing order is in place farmers still have to keep other free range standards.

"The only difference it that the birds aren't allowed out on the range area itself.

"They're in a large house, lower in stock density and have things to keep them happy such as straw bales and cardboard boxes to peck at."

A spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents the interests of shops across the UK, agreed.

She says: "Being housed is not the same as battery farm conditions. They could be in an open barn - the wording on the labels is quite important."

The first priority for farmers is the health of their birds Credit: PA

And while some farmers may be forced to make expensive and "impractical" changes if they want to keep their free range status, Aimee from the NFU says the first priority is the welfare of the birds.

She added: "DEFRA had to make really difficult decision and it's one that's not been taken lightly.

"First and foremost everyone's concern is about bird welfare and doing what's best for birds to protect them.

"On the flip side farmers also have to consider the impact on their income - losing free range status could possibly have knock-on effects.

"It could mean some farms going out of business, but at the moment we have to take any risks day by day."