The UK’s Christmas egg shortage

Supermarkets blame bird flu but farmers say unfair buying practices are driving them out of business

Eggs
Major UK supermarket chains are rationing eggs for customers because of supply chain issues
(Image credit: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Supermarket customers across the UK are facing limits on how many eggs they can buy amid a supply crisis that is expected to last beyond Christmas.

Marks & Spencer and Morrisons this week joined Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Lidl in rationing sales of boxes of eggs. Sainsbury’s has not limited egg purchases as yet, “but said some stores may be running low on some lines”, the BBC’s Tom Espiner reported. The chain also said it was “temporarily” sourcing eggs from Italy, despite a previous commitment to only buy from British suppliers.

Supermarkets have “blamed the shortage on a bad outbreak of avian flu”, said The Times. But “farmers disagree – strongly”, the newspaper added.

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Why is there an egg shortage?

The industry’s “worst ever” bout of bird flu has resulted in around 750,000 laying hens being culled since 1 October, The Guardian reported. By comparison, around 1.8m were killed over the whole of last year.

But Jennifer Turnball, a poultry farmer in Eden Valley in Cumbria, insisted that the outbreak was not the main cause of the eggs shortages. “It is because farmers no longer have enough money to pay for their chicken feed, the energy bills for their sheds, to pay for the pullets [young hens] and higher wages for staff and to also take on the risk of avian influenza So farmers have not restocked their hens,” she told The Times.

Like many fellow producers, Turnball accused supermarkets of exacerbating the cost problems.

Demand for eggs has soared as big hikes in meat prices push consumers towards other sources of protein. Yet while egg prices have also climbed as the cost-of-living crisis bites, farmers claim supermarkets are keeping most of the extra income while they operate at a loss.

According to the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), the average supermarket price of a dozen eggs has risen by about 50p since the start of the year. But farmers have received an average increase of only 18p, and some “have only seen a price rise of between 5p and 10p”, said the trade body.

The Times reported that egg producers “say they need to be paid another 29p per dozen to break even this year, and 41p to make enough to reinvest in their business and make a profit”.

The shortage has been looming for some time. BFREPA warned in March that stores needed to raise egg prices and give farmers a fair cut, in order to “avert a catastrophe in the sector”. Farmers were “being hit from all sides by huge hikes” in costs, said the organisation, which reported that prices for feed were up by 50%, and energy by some 40%, along with increases to transport and labour bills.

A growing number egg producers are cracking under the strain. A recent survey by BFREPA of 163 free range producers found that 33% had either reduced chicken flock sizes, paused production temporarily or left the industry.

How long will the crisis last?

A spokesperson from BFREPA told The Guardian that while it was “very hard” to predict” how long the shortages would last, the crisis could continue “until after Christmas”.

British Egg Industry Council chair Andrew Joret said the availability of eggs should return to normal “once cost pressures ease”, but added: “We don’t know when this will be, and egg packers and producers continue to lose money.”

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that eggs are on the shelves while the industry works with retailers so that it can get back on its feet as quickly as possible,” he told the paper.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey told Parliament last week that the UK still had a total of 38m laying hens and that she was confident “we can get through” the eggs shortage.

A Defra spokesperson said the government was “not expecting any significant impact to the overall supply”.

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