Bird flu – the lowdown for chickens, eggs and you 

By Tom Tanner, Sustainable Restaurant Association

What is it? 

Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds. In rare cases, it can affect humans. In October, the Government announced a package of measures to support poultry farmers in response to the UK’s worst ever outbreak with over 200 cases confirmed across the country in the last 12 months. Normally, it spreads during the winter and dies away in the summer months. That respite didn’t come this year. 

As one expert summarised rather bluntly: “It’s the COVID of poultry, except that turkeys and other poultry don’t get sick and recover; they just die.” 

How is it affecting poultry? 

The British Poultry Council reports that the current strain is particularly virulent in turkeys, geese and ducks – less so chickens. As a result, if a farm tests positive for bird flu, the entire flock must be culled. Millions of birds have had to be destroyed in the last 12 months, with farms in East Anglia worst affected. Gressingham, the largest producer of duck in the UK, reports it has been seriously affected. The UK has lost 40 per cent of its free-range turkey flock and the resulting culls have left some butchers without supplies, adding to pressures on the market over the key Christmas period. To try and limit the spread of the disease, all flocks must be kept indoors now. 

Pekin duck – Credit: RSPCA

How is it affecting egg supplies? 

While flu has been an issue for egg farmers too, the shortages and rationing going on right now are caused by a slightly wider set of issues.  

These farmers have also had to fork out more for wheat, a key ingredient in chicken feed, which has spiked as a result of the Ukraine war, with both Russia and Ukraine producing about 30% of the global supply. The price of hen feed is up 50%. Then there’s the cost of keeping the hens warm – and we all know what’s happened to energy bills, up by anything from 40% or more. Farmers say that the increased price major supermarkets are paying them represents only a fraction of the increased costs they’ve incurred.  

The British Free Range Egg Producers Association said bird flu-related culls had claimed 750,000 laying hens since 1 October alone, compared with 1.8 million over the whole of last year. 

This noxious mix of disease and debt has forced many farmers to decide against restocking for now, and some even to give up altogether – hence the shortages and rationing that has seen the likes of JD Wetherspoon among businesses affected by supply issues. In pubs struggling for reliable egg supplies, they’re offering customers replacements for menu items that would normally include eggs. 

Credit: Red Tractor

What’s anyone doing about it? 

The Government has changed the compensation scheme to pay farmers from the outset of planned culling rather than at the end. Farmers who breed turkeys, geese or ducks for their meat now have the option to slaughter their flocks early and to freeze birds. They can then be defrosted and sold, giving farmers greater certainty. 

The RSPCA is concerned about the impact this is having on welfare and stress caused to birds now kept indoors, with fears it could lead to higher levels of feather pecking and smothering. 

The charity is contacting farmers and retailers to explore ways to deal with this issue and says there’s ongoing research into possible vaccinations for poultry. 

Current bird flu vaccines protect birds from serious illness and death but cannot stop the spread of the virus and currently vaccination is not permitted in the UK

The UK is not alone in this predicament and a solution may well have to be a global one too. Hence the UK’s Deputy Chief Vet, Richard Irvine, saying that discussions were ongoing “at an international level” about the use of vaccines. 

That clearly won’t come soon, so it looks like some serious menu-flexing might be required. 

Meanwhile, the SRA will, for the purpose of the Food Made Good standard, take into consideration the current situation when assessing animal welfare questions relating to poultry and eggs. 

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