Egg shortages and rationing in the UK are expected to last beyond Christmas, an industry body has warned, as the poultry industry grapples with spiralling costs and its worst ever bout of bird flu.

Lidl is limiting customers to three boxes of eggs each, while Asda is restricting purchases to two boxes per shopper.

Tesco is also considering rationing eggs, after bird flu resulted in shortages on some supermarket shelves. Other supermarkets are sourcing eggs abroad, including Italy.

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.

BFREPA argues that egg shortages are also a result of retailers not paying a “sustainable price” to farmers, whose hen feed costs have shot up by at least 50% since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while fuel bills have soared by 40%.

“It’s very hard to predict but we can certainly see [shortages] lasting until after Christmas,” a spokesperson said, adding that a third of its members had cut back on production or left the industry because they were unable to cover their costs.

Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Supermarkets source the vast majority of their food from the UK and know they need to pay a sustainable price to egg farmers but are constrained by how much additional cost they can pass on to consumers during a cost-of-living crisis.”

Andrew Joret, the chair of the British Egg Industry Council, said higher production costs were mainly to blame for the pressure on egg supply, along with hens lost to bird flu, and strong consumer demand, with eggs seen as a relatively cheap source of protein.

“While we expect supply to return to normal once cost pressures ease, 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.”

The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, said on Thursday there were still nearly 40 million egg-laying hens in the UK and expressed confidence that “we can get through this supply difficulty in the short term”.

The latest outbreak of bird flu, which has lasted over a year, has sparked fears over a long-term crisis brewing in Britain’s poultry and egg industry, and that birds will be stuck inside for long periods every year – a serious threat to free-range production.

Free-range egg and poultry producers have had to bring their animals inside since 7 November, and keep them away from wild birds to reduce the spread of the highly contagious virus. It is the government’s fourth such housing order, after similar orders were issued in 2017, 2020 and 2021, and lasted for up to 22 weeks.

The restrictions are designed to reduce the risk from migratory birds carrying the virus over the winter months, although last winter’s outbreak carried on into the spring and summer.

Animal charities are worried about welfare standards suffering as a result of the housing measures. Jane Howorth, who founded the British Hen Welfare Trust in 2005, said: “There’s highly likely to be some overcrowding. It’s a real concern.

“These birds are reared to enjoy ranging outside and when you change their pattern of behaviour, you immediately increase stress levels. Farmers really have their work cut out … Some farmers that we’ve worked with for years have thrown in the towel and are not replacing their flocks.”

Read More: UK egg shortages to last beyond Christmas, industry warns | Food & drink industry

2022-11-17 17:39:00

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