Fact Check: The truth behind free range labelling

Could free range eggs and meat disappear from UK stores?

(Image credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty)

There is growing confusion surrounding free range labelling, with several newspapers predicting that free range products could soon disappear from supermarket shelves.

The situation was triggered by an outbreak of avian flu in Europe last year, which forced poultry farmers to house their hens indoors. These birds are currently still classed as free range, but if the hens are not allowed outside by the end of the month, they will lose their prized status.

"The impact that this will have on the British free range poultry industry has huge long term implications," warned the National Farmers Union's Chief Poultry adviser Gary Ford.

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But what does all this mean for consumers and the future of free range labelling?

What are the facts?

After the first UK case of the H5N8 virus was reported in December, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued a prevention zone order in England to try to halt the spread of the disease.

This meant that free range hens, which had previously been allowed to roam outside in fenced areas during the day with at least four square metres of space each, had to be kept indoors 24 hours a day.

The order was initially forecast to last 30 days, but was extended for another month in January.

What does this mean for free range labelling?

The BBC reported this week that producers are currently putting stickers on their eggs and meat, so consumers are aware that the birds are being "temporarily housed" for their own safety.

Under EU law, if the hens are forced to remain indoors after 28 February they can no longer be labelled free range and will have to be branded "barn-reared" instead.

"For now, the stickers and signs are within regulations, but… it is uncertain how long stickers can be used after the end of the month, instead of full package redesigns," says the BBC.

Will free range eggs disappear from our shelves?

The short answer is no. The government says it will adopt a "more targeted approach" to containment after 28 February, which means that some free range farms will be allowed to release their hens after this date, but others in higher risk areas will still be required to keep birds indoors.

It says three quarters of farms will be allowed to let their birds outside after the end of the month, albeit with added protection measures in place. If this is the case, there is likely to be a drop in the number of products allowed to use free range labelling, but they won't disappear from supermarkets altogether.

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