Fergus Ewing: Don’t sacrifice ‘free range’ to avian flu

A chicken farm in Strathkinness, Fife. Photograph: Carl De Souza/Getty

A chicken farm in Strathkinness, Fife. Photograph: Carl De Souza/Getty

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Anyone buying eggs over the past few weeks might have noticed stickers and posters in stores explaining that free range hens have been temporarily housed in barns for their own protection.

This step was first taken in December, when I announced – along with Defra and the Welsh government – an avian influenza Prevention Zone in response to a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8 sweeping across Europe. Since then the virus has only been confirmed in a single wild bird in Scotland, a peregrine falcon found near Dumfries. However there have been ten confirmed cases in domestic birds in England and Wales, and numerous wild bird findings across the UK.

I want to reassure you that the strain of avian influenza we are seeing this winter does not affect humans, and the clear advice from experts is that there is no health risk from eating eggs or poultry meat.

We know from previous outbreaks the devastating impact that avian influenza can have on our poultry industry. That is why the decision made in December to house birds, to help protect them from infection by migratory wild birds, was the right choice and received backing from the industry. EU law allows eggs from birds kept indoors due to veterinary restrictions to continue to be sold as free range for up to 12 weeks. This 12-week period ended on 28 February. That is why retailers are now informing consumers about the status of their eggs.

Free range is a Scottish success story. Roughly half of all chicken eggs laid in Scotland come from free range birds. The two largest free range egg production units in Europe are located near Peebles, with free range eggs estimated to be worth £46 million to Scottish farming last year. Clearly, it is in our best interests to ensure that this thriving industry is protected at this difficult time.

My officials and I have been in close contact with key poultry industry representatives throughout the current European outbreak, to ensure that protection measures in Scotland remain practicable and proportionate.

That is why, on 28 February, we changed the requirements of the avian influenza Prevention Zone in Scotland to allow birds to be let outside again under enhanced biosecurity.

Biosecurity is the suite of steps that can be taken to prevent disease from entering or spreading on your premises – such as disinfecting footwear and equipment, and keeping wild birds away from outdoor areas.

You may also have heard about “higher risk areas”, such as those near bodies of water, where birds must continue to be housed. These only apply in England. It is our view, informed by the best scientific advice, that all of Scotland is subject to the same level of risk, and therefore the same restrictions should apply to all bird keepers, regardless of where they live.

Scottish keepers now have the choice of either letting their birds outside again, under enhanced biosecurity, or to continue to keep them indoors. Birds which continue to be kept indoors will no longer qualify as free range under EU law, however. It is a commercial decision for each individual farmer.

Prior to the zone changing, I wrote to the major supermarkets to explain the situation in Scotland, and to make it clear that Scottish farmers will have the option to continue to provide free range poultry products for consumers. I was clear that, as long as Scottish farmers continue to produce free range eggs, these should be made available to consumers and clearly labelled as such. It would be unhelpful for the free range provenance of many Scottish eggs to be hidden from consumers’ view because of a UK-wide marketing approach which does not make the differences clear across our countries.

The avian influenza Prevention Zone will continue to apply in Scotland until the end of April, when we will reassess the risk and consider whether further restrictions are necessary. I am grateful for the continued support and understanding of both producers and consumers during this challenging period. And I would encourage everyone to keep buying Scottish eggs and chicken.

Fergus Ewing is Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy

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