UK supermarkets can no longer sell ‘free-range’ eggs due to bird flu crisis

Free-range eggs are no longer available to buy in the UK following the largest ever outbreak of avian influenza (bird flu).

Supermarkets must label the eggs as ‘barn eggs’ as the birds have been kept indoors for over 16 weeks.

From Monday, signs will be put up to inform shoppers about the current situation.

The move comes are more than half a million birds in the UK have been culled since the outbreak began.

Moreover, the hens have been permitted to stay inside to stop the spread of the virus.

UK bird flu crisis

Known as avian influenza, the disease affects wild aquatic birds, domestic poultry, and other bird species.

Most bird flu viruses don’t infect humans, but some strains now can cause serious infections in people.

These so-called highly-pathogenic strains include H5N1 and H7N9.

Although these strains aren’t commonly found in humans, it does have an alarming mortality rate of 60%1.

Intensive poultry farming becomes a breeding ground for infectious diseases and can spread like wildfire.

The majority of chickens are housed in tightly packed, dirty, and dark environments with little UV light to kill viruses.

Following the tragic culling of over half a million birds, the government has issued an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone.

This legal requirement means that all UK bird keeps must house their birds inside to prevent further infections.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said: “We are experiencing our largest ever outbreak of avian flu and housing measures remain in force to protect poultry and other birds from this highly infectious and unpleasant disease.”

The problem with ‘free-range’

In 2021, 58% of eggs bought by UK shoppers were labelled free-range2.

While most people may feel that these eggs are the ‘sustainable’ choice, the image of free-roaming hens in a green field isn’t always the case.

Due to the rising demand for eggs in recent years, chickens are under immense pressure to lay eggs.

Wild hens will usually lay 10 – 15 eggs a year, whereas farmed hens will lay roughly 300 eggs a year.

Moreover, this intensive process can have damaging effects on the chicken’s body.

Problems such as egg peritonitis (infection and inflammation in the abdominal cavity), prolapses, osteoporosis, keel bone fractures due to a lack of calcium, and even cancer are all common amongst egg-laying chickens, even those labelled organic and free-range.

Although free-range eggs are legally required to have access to outdoor spaces, it isn’t always easy for them to access.

Just one ‘pop hole’ is required per 800 birds and the territorial nature of chickens means dominant hens guard the holes.

Unfortunately, this means a high percentage of the rest never see outside.

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