What bird flu restrictions easing means for supermarket egg supplies

The lifting of bird flu restrictions has come as a relief to some farmers, but others feel it is not yet safe. ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi reports

Words by Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer

Shoppers will begin to see free-range eggs return to the shelves in the coming days as restrictions preventing the spread of bird flu have started to lift.

Since early November, keepers have been required to house flocks indoors and away from wildlife to reduce the spread of avian influenza, or bird flu.

But from Tuesday, eggs labelled “free range” will be back in shops as hens will again have access to outdoor areas.

It follows the UK facing its largest ever outbreak of bird flu with more than 330 cases confirmed across the country since late October 2021.

What do the rule changes mean for the eggs in your shopping basket?

From today, eggs laid by hens that can roam outside can return to being marketed as "free-range" eggs.

Since November, poultry had to be kept inside to prevent the spread of bird flu.

That's why retailers such as Tesco previously noted some of their products may contain "barn eggs" instead.

Rising costs and the introduction of the restrictions in November led to retailers limiting how many boxes of eggs customers could buy.

Asda previously limited customers to two boxes of eggs each, and Lidl introduced a three-box restriction in some of its stores.

Signage for eggs on the shelves in a Lidl store in Slough in November Credit: PA

Higher energy bills, along with the soaring costs of chicken feed, hens, and packaging, have forced producers to cut back on output.

The disease has also affected choice and price in the shops.

"On staple goods such as eggs, bread and milk we're trying to stay away from putting the price up to the customer and we're absorbing those costs," food retailer Amrit Singh told ITV News. "Hopefully now that those restrictions have been lifted we will be able to get some more supply in and we can get over this shortage."

Eggs are more expensive to buy now compared to last year, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures released last month showed.

The price of eggs rose 32.5% on average over the 12 months to February 2023, according to figures based on the CPI (Consumer Prices Index) measure of inflation published by the ONS.

Chicken farmer Mark Gorton told ITV News that although it is a "fantastic day" in terms of restrictions being lifted, he does not predict chicken meat prices reducing. "We're suffering the same as everybody else with huge cost increases. One price comes down, and another one goes up," he said.

How prevalent is bird flu? The government said bird flu risk levels have reduced to “medium.”

But experts have warned that, despite the relaxation of restrictions, the disease is still around in wild birds.

Chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss stressed it is “more important than ever” for birdkeepers to remain vigilant for signs of the disease and maintain “scrupulous” biosecurity standards.

Some farmers are opting not to let their chickens out despite restrictions easing.

Egg farmer Alaistaire Brice believes the risks in his area of east Anglia remain too high.

"When you've got something as deadly and as virulent as bird flu out in their ranges, it's just not practical or common sense for me to put them in jeopardy," he told ITV News.

Egg farmer Alaistaire Brice said given the risks, 'it's just not practical' to allow his animals out

Various temporary control zones, ranging from 1km to 10km, may be put in place to stop the disease spreading if a confirmed case of bird flu is found.

Those who keep birds will need to follow the specific rules of each disease zone, as laid out in an interactive online map from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

When it comes to wild birds, a study published last week warned that bird flu “may threaten the very survival of some species” in Scotland.

The NatureScot report, which looked at avian flu in wild birds, found long-term conservation measures will be the most effective tool against the virus.

A tractor pictured passing a sign near Eccles in Norfolk in October Credit: PA

Earlier this month, the head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said it was keeping a close eye on the threat posed by bird flu following signs of transmission to mammals.

Dame Jenny Harries, who helped lead the country’s response to the pandemic, said in early April that there is no new risk to humans from avian influenza, but assured that it is being assessed by the agency.

In March, the UKHSA released figures showing avian flu had been found in 23 of 219 wild mammals collected since October 2021, representing a further nine cases since an update earlier this year.

Several foxes were found to have the disease Credit: PA

The animals included six foxes, six grey seals, five otters, three harbour seals, two dolphins and one harbour porpoise.

Of the 23 cases reported, nine were in Scotland, 12 in England, and two were in Wales.

In addition, bird flu had also been retrospectively detected in a group of 10 captive bush dogs kept in a zoo, from November last year.

The UKHSA stressed that, so far, indications are that any passing of flu between mammals is limited.

Can I get bird flu from eating eggs?

Food standards bodies have reassured the public that avian influenza poses a very low risk to UK consumers, and there is no impact on properly cooked poultry and eggs.This is echoed by the NHS, that says eating fully cooked poultry and eggs is safe even in an area with an outbreak of the disease.

The UK Health Security Agency has said avian viruses do not spread easily to humans and have so far found no positive cases in people while monitoring those who have developed flu or cold-like symptoms after being in contact with a bird.

National Trust rangers clearing dead birds Staple Island, off the coast of Northumberland, last July Credit: PA

They are advising that people avoid contact with any sick or dead wild birds they might find and wash their hands after feeding wild birds.

Bird flu spreads to humans through close contact with an infected bird, dead or alive. This includes touching affected birds, their bedding or their droppings. It also includes killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking, the health service says.

If you are visiting a foreign country that has had an outbreak, the NHS advises avoiding markets where live birds are being sold. It can be prevented by washing your hands often, using different utensils for raw and cooked meat while cooking, and ensuring meat is steaming hot.

It also advises not having contact with infected birds, or eating undercooked poultry, duck or eggs.

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