No more free-range eggs due to bird flu

Eggs from free-range chickens

In the Netherlands, the indoor and enclosure obligation for poultry has been in force for some time. This has consequences for poultry farms that sell free-range eggs. Because chickens have been cooped up for more than 16 weeks, their eggs are no longer considered free-range and are sold as cheaper free-range eggs. On the other hand, poultry farmers with free-range chickens have more costs. This is mainly due to the land on which his company stands, says Harry Hunse from the poultry farm Het Drentse Heide Ei. “My chickens can go outside, which means I need more land and an outdoor enclosure. It’s expensive.”

Organic eggs

Different rules apply to organic eggs. “It’s a completely different category,” explains Kees Sijbenga. With his biodynamic egg-laying hen farm, he only deals in organic eggs. “Free-range chickens are basically free-range chickens that can go outside, and there is an additional fee. Organic chickens have more space in the barn, get different feed and antibiotics are not used. So you can’t just turn an organic chicken into a free-range chicken.”

Free-range, the link between free-range and organic

Free-range eggs have often been sold cheaper in recent years due to the cage requirement. This worries the Dutch Poultry Association. Chairman Bart-Jan Oplaat: “Companies will soon completely stop free-ranging and go back to free-ranging. It is harmful for the chickens, but also for the sector.” Oplaat calls free-range an important link between free-range and organic. “A farmer does not just go from free-range to organic. The investments are too high to be managed all at once. The step is too big. That’s why many poultry farmers often first take the step from free-range to free-range, and a few years later to organic. This intermediate step is therefore crucial.”

Who pays for the damage?

Various supermarkets have decided not to buy the eggs at a lower price. PLUS and the Jumbos have announced that they will continue to pay their poultry farmers the contract price for free-range eggs. According to Oplaat, poultry farmers are not completely out of trouble because of this. “About 70 percent of the eggs end up in the supermarket, but there are also other buyers. The other 30 percent is sold to parties such as bakeries, restaurants and biscuit manufacturers. They often pay the lower price, so the bill ends up partly on the farmer’s plate.”

“Man is a creature of habit”

Albert Heijn also continues to buy eggs at the price of free-range eggs. “The eggs stay on the shelf where they always are, in the well-known packaging. We inform our customers via the shelf cards and a special label on the egg cartons,” says a spokesperson.

Oplaat thinks it is positive that the space in the supermarket and the packaging remain largely the same. “Man is a creature of habit, so he probably takes the same box. If, on the other hand, the shelf with free-range eggs is empty, there is a good chance that the consumer will switch to free-range eggs. It saves money and people are already more price conscious in these times of inflation. If consumers have to buy free-range eggs for a longer period of time, it enters their system. It is not a given that they will switch back to free-range eggs when they are available again.”

Cramps are a tool, not a solution

It is unclear how long the chickens will remain indoors. Bird flu still exists. Last week there was a major outbreak in Gelderse Loo which resulted in the culling of 60,000 egg-laying hens. Biodynamic farmer Kees Sijbenga: “Ultimately, the confinement obligation is not a real solution. It is effective, but the farmer can still bring the virus into the barn, and mice can transfer it to the chickens.” Furthermore, animal welfare is undermined by this measure, he says. “The stress factor in the chickens increases if they have to stay indoors for a long time . They start pecking at each other and getting restless. I have a nice outside area for the chickens. It’s a shame they haven’t been able to use it for weeks now.”

Is a bird flu vaccine around?

Poultry farmers and the trade union have long called for poultry to be vaccinated against bird flu. Wageningen University is currently testing three different vaccines that may work. “These are vaccines that are already at an advanced stage of development,” says avian flu expert Nancy Beerens, also involved in the study. However, this does not mean that the vaccines will be ready for use in the near future. Beerens: “This is really still a laboratory study. You also need to know how the vaccine behaves in practice. We will test that.”

If the vaccine proves effective, mass vaccination cannot yet take place. “First, the vaccine must be registered. In addition, there are also restrictions on the trade if you have to vaccinate. These are guidelines adopted within the EU. So there is still a lot of legal work to be done before such a vaccine can be used in the poultry industry,” says Beerens. Nevertheless, the chairman of the Dutch poultry farmers’ union is cautiously positive. “If the vaccine does what it is supposed to, then there is perspective. It is a big step on the way.”

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