Avian flu puts organic chicken in confinement

Layers with access to the outdoors can no longer roam free or feel the sun in their beaks, as some American and European farmers keep flocks temporarily confined during outbreaks of deadly bird flu, according to egg producers and industry representatives.

This change comes as a surprise to buyers who are already spending more money on eggs due to culling infected flocks. Consumers pay more for specialty eggs, believing that they come from chickens that can venture outside the shed.

US watchdogs say retailers and egg companies must do a better job of informing customers that chickens are confined, as shoppers track their spending amid record global food inflation. Putting the birds in confinement is considered the safest at the moment, according to government officials, because a single case of bird flu results in the culling of entire flocks. The virus can also infect humans, although experts say the risk is low.

In France, where the government has temporarily asked farmers to keep chicken confined since November, some retailers are defying obligations to disclose clear information to consumers about the mandate, according to supermarket checks by Reuters.

“I didn’t know they had to be confined,” said Josephine Barrett, 34, a shopper at a convenience store in Paris who had no evidence that the chickens could have been confined.

So it’s not ‘outdoors’ anymore? She said. “I think there is no other option because of bird flu, but they can say so.”

It is believed that allowing chickens to spend time outdoors is more humane, giving consumers some peace of mind when purchasing animal husbandry products.

Veterinarians say birds with access to the outdoors are especially vulnerable to bird flu, officially known as Highly Infectious Avian Influenza or HPAI, because migratory birds spread the disease. Poultry can get sick from contact with infected wild birds, their feathers, or their faeces.

The USDA recommends that farmers keep birds confined “during an outbreak of highly virulent avian influenza,” but it did not require confinement.

The outbreak in the United States is the second worst in history, killing more than 35 million birds this year. France culled nearly 16 million birds in its worst outbreak ever, while the infection has also infected countries such as Britain, Italy and Spain.

European requirements for chicken confinement have left some consumers unsatisfied, even as retailers have posted signs informing customers of the change.

“At the end of the day, you’re still paying for ‘free range’ or organic eggs when the birds never see the sky,” said Marc Ducem, a 52-year-old shopper, who spoke at a large supermarket in Paris.

Marketing standards in the European Union and the United Kingdom allow free laying hens to be kept indoors for up to 16 weeks before companies have to issue notices to customers.

Britain has temporarily required “free-range” chicken eggs kept inside barns to be called “barn eggs”, but it has allowed farmers to leave chickens outside again from May.

Mar Fernandez, head of the Professional Organization for Eggs and Egg Products in Spain, said that in Spain, chickens should be kept indoors in the country’s special danger and control areas. She said they had not been inside in more than 16 weeks.

“There are countries that have not had eggs from pastured chickens for months,” Fernandez said. The Department of Agriculture said US officials do not require organic egg producers to update labels when unforeseen events such as bird flu alter production practices. Eggs labeled “organic” and “grass-free” must come from chickens pastured in the United States.

Among the vendors that now block outdoor access is Pete and Gerry’s, which claims to be the leading American producer of organic, free-range, and pasture-raised eggs. The company sells eggs in stores owned by Kroger Co (KR.N) and Whole Foods Market by Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O).

“We will continually assess the risk of sun exposure and put it back in the sun as quickly as possible,” Pete and Jerry said.

Vital Farms Inc (VITL.O), another North American producer of pasture eggs, said it has imposed restrictions on chickens after the outbreak in Europe. Both products have information about going online, but the labels “free domain” and “high range” remain the same.

Whole Foods, Kroger and Target Corp (TGT.N) did not respond to questions about whether they would post notices to buyers.

“Consumers should get what they pay for and not get the product as advertised,” said Danielle Melgar, a food advocate with the American Public Interest Research Group.

Some European producers are resisting hold orders, despite the risks.

“Layers can be very aggressive, so we let them go out a little bit each day or they kill themselves,” said Emilie Ravalli, who runs an organic farm in Corcoue-sur-Logne in western France.

Barns can be comfortable, and chickens don’t always come out every day, even when they can, said Gregory Martin, an ornithologist at Penn State University.

“Confinement gives us security,” Martin said. “Only live birds produce eggs, so it is beneficial to keep our birds safe.”

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