Eggs laid by hens kept in barns for months could be classed as free range under changes being considered by the government to keep farmers competitive with the rest of Europe. It comes as concerns emerged over proposals in the EU risk putting UK farmers at a material disadvantage.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, led by Therese Coffey, is currently weighing up changes to rules that mean eggs can’t be classed as free range if birds are indoors for more than 16 weeks, sources in Whitehall have said.
It follows as the EU prepares to rip up its own rules in response to avian flu outbreaks.
In the EU and UK, farmers currently have a grace period of 16 weeks, meaning eggs can be labelled as free-range if a government-issued housing order for birds is in place up to 16 weeks.
Following the 16-week mark, labels must be put on packaging to indicate they are now barn eggs.
Officials fear that current rules could put British farmers at a serious disadvantage if proposed changes to the EU’s regulations are put forward.
Officials in Brussels have been considering allowing farmers within EU member countries to carry on labelling eggs as free-range during Avian flu outbreaks despite the fact some chickens may have been kept indoors for longer than 16 weeks.
The European Commission has put forward a proposal which says that “where temporary restrictions have been imposed on the basis of EU legislation, eggs may be marketed as ‘free-range’ notwithstanding that restriction”.
The proposal, which is awaiting approval by the European Parliament, means eggs could be classed as free range even if hens are forced to spend months indoors due to government rulings.
UK Government officials are worried that such changes could disadvantage farmers.
It comes following fears that retailers may opt out of buying eggs from the continent that are still labelled free-range during bird flu outbreaks.
Up to 70 per cent of eggs sold in British supermarkets are free-range, according to market research company Kantar.