Egg producers can market their products as free range even if the hens have no open-air access for up to 16 weeks. A previous rule set the allowable confinement period at 12 weeks. The EC extended what’s called the derogation period due to the likelihood of prolonged avian influenza outbreaks in the future.
“The changes to the rules come as a direct response from the European Commission to concerns raised by EU hen farmers about the potential economic losses for free range farms,” according to the EC. “In times of high risk of avian influenza EU-wide veterinary rules require hens to be kept indoors in order reduce the risk of infections from migratory birds, but this is directly at odds with EU rules on free range eggs which state that laying hens must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs.”
The new regulations also address new flocks introduced during an AI restriction period. So, eggs from each individual flock on the same farm can be labeled as free-range for the full 16-week period if open air access is restricted, regardless of when the farm came under the restrictions, the EC said.
Data from the EC show there are approximately 390 million hens in the European Union, of which around 54 million (14 percent) are kept in free-range housing systems. The United Kingdom has the most hens in free-range systems at 53 percent followed by Ireland (40 percent), Austria (21 percent), France (18 percent), Germany (18 percent) and the Netherlands (15 percent).
The UK also keeps the biggest share of the EU’s population of free-range hens at 41 percent, followed by Germany (17 percent), France (16 percent) and the Netherlands (10 percent), according to the EC.