Free range eggs could disappear within weeks, the UK's Chief Vet explains why

Free-range eggs could lose their status within weeks. Credit: ITV News

Free-range eggs could soon start disappearing from our supermarket shelves because of restrictions imposed last November to stop the spread of bird flu, something which some farmers say could ruin their livelihoods.

Bird flu restrictions were first introduced last November and were further strengthened on 29 November when a housing order was brought in. Since then farmers have had to keep their birds indoors.

If the housing order remains in place past 21 March it will mean birds have been kept inside for more than 16 weeks, preventing their eggs from being sold as free-range.

Birds have had to kept indoors since last November due to bird flu restrictions Credit: ITV News

The restrictions have been introduced to ensure that birds kept on poultry farms remain separate from wild birds which are migrating and may be carrying avian influenza. It is not unusual to have such measures in place, but what is unusual is the length of time they have been imposed this winter amid what experts have described as the worst bird flu outbreak they have seen.

The UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Christine Middlemiss, is keen to explain why they are prioritising the safety of birds, rather than the status of their eggs: "Biosecurity is paramount. The more we are able to protect the birds and they don't get infection, then they will be able to carry on with their production. If they become infected, we need to go in and cull those birds which has a devastating impact for those companies affected."

She went on to warn that currently it looks likely that the housing order is unlikely to be lifted in time to prevent eggs from losing their free-range status: "The risk level is dependent on wild bird presence and their level of infection. They may migrate earlier and that infection level drop but given that we are already well into February, we've not seen any reduction in that risk level yet. We and bird keepers and those commercial farms really need to be prepared that the risk level is going to stay very high into the end of March and we won't be lifting the house in order after the 16 weeks."

Watch more from the Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Christine Middlemiss:

If restrictions do remain in place beyond the 16 week deadline for retaining free-range status, egg producers will need add stickers to their packaging explaining why the eggs are now classed as barn eggs.

Those who work to promote the industry are still urging consumers to support free-range producers.

Jane Howorth from the British Hen Welfare Trust said: "Although it might seem a little bit contrary to be buying a free-range egg from a hen that hasn't been free-ranging, it's all the more important that we do still support those British free-range farmers that have invested in that system. It's the best welfare for the birds. Keep buying those eggs because soon, in a few weeks time, hopefully the migration season will have come and gone and it will all be back outside again, hens having a nice time scratching around."

Watch James Webster's full report: