Why are 'free range' eggs vanishing from supermarket shelves?

A tray of eggs

Free range eggs are being relabelled as 'barn eggs' because the hens that laid them have been kept indoors for 16 weeks due to bird flu restrictions - Credit: Phil Morley

Free-range eggs are no longer available on UK supermarket shelves, after bird flu outbreaks forced outdoor hens to be cooped up indoors for four months.

They will be re-labelled as "barn eggs" due to the prolonged lockdown aimed at containing the country's largest ever outbreak of avian influenza - including several cases in East Anglia.

The government enforced the mandatory housing order in November, but farmers forced to bring their poultry indoors were allowed to keep the free-range status for their eggs for 16 weeks - a grace period which expired on March 21.

It means their products must now be classed as "barn eggs".

Chickens at a farm at Great Ellingham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Free range eggs are being relabelled as 'barn eggs' because the hens that laid them have been kept indoors for 16 weeks due to bird flu restrictions - Credit: Denise Bradley

The British Retail Consortium said signs will be put in supermarkets to inform shoppers of the change, adding that free-range labelling will return after the hens are permitted to go outside again.

Aimee Mahony, chief poultry adviser for the National Farmers' Union, said there was still a high level of risk to birds of catching flu.

"This is an incredibly difficult time for all bird owners and vigilance remains vital," she said, adding that farmers were following "stringent biosecurity measures" and adapting hen houses to make birds more comfortable.

About 55pc of all eggs produced in the UK are free-range, according to the RSPCA.

Both "barn" and "free range" eggs meet the RSPCA's welfare standards, because the hens that lay them have freedom and space to move around, along with perches for roosting.

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The difference is that free-range hens can also access the outside - although bird flu restrictions have put a stop to this.

The disease continues to circulate, affecting poultry farms and back-yard pet flocks. 

More than 80 cases have been confirmed this winter across England, with the latest near Woodbridge on Sunday becoming Suffolk's fifth bird flu outbreak within a month, following outbreaks at Market Weston, Elmswell and two at Redgrave near Diss.

In Norfolk, cases have been confirmed at Pensthorpe Natural Park, at a farm in Pentney, near King's Lynn, and in a small domestic flock at Holkham.

A Defra spokesman 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 16-week grace period we allowed for free range eggs has now been exceeded, and eggs must now be marketed as 'barn eggs'.

"We have worked closely with the sector and retailers to implement these changes as smoothly as possible."