A ‘free range’ bird will continue to be a ‘free range’ bird after March 17, according to the IFA Poultry Chairman Nigel Renaghan.

He was speaking following the decision by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to extend the compulsory housing order for poultry until April 30.

Under EU regulations, eggs and poultry meat may continue to be marketed as ‘free range’ for up to 12 weeks from when the compulsory housing order is brought into effect.

In Ireland’s case, the 12-week period is set to expire on March 17.

A free range bird will continue to be free range after March 17, regardless of whether it is outside in a field or inside in a shed.

“These birds have been bred for that specific purpose,” he said.

A new labelling system for ‘free range’ eggs, informing customers that the eggs were laid by hens that were being housed for their own welfare, is set to come into effect on March 17, he added.

As of yet it is unclear who is going to cover the additional cost of this extra labelling system, Renaghan said.

But the IFA Poultry Chairman believes it is crucial that both the retail sector and the processing industry, as well as customers, support ‘free range’ poultry farmers during this difficult time.

The retail sector must support ‘free range’ producers and give a firm commitment that no reduction in price will be sought, for poultry products produced from ‘free range’ poultry farms, he said.

All free range production in Ireland comes from small, independently-run family farms whose existence will be threatened if there is any reduction in the price they receive for their eggs or broilers.

“Free range production comes with increased costs and requires significant investment in infrastructure over many years.

“Similar long-term investments have been made by the processing industry in marketing free range poultry products,” he said.

How long will these measures remain in place?

Renaghan is hopeful that the poultry sector will return to ‘business as usual’ after the compulsory housing order for poultry is lifted on April 30.

“There are two main reasons why the housing order was extended,” he said. “It is hoped that most of the migratory birds will have moved on by the end of April.

Meanwhile, the weather will have hopefully become warmer and the grass will have begun to grow. By that time there will be very little risk of contamination from any faeces left behind by wild birds.

“The only danger is if our indigenous birds have caught the disease from the migratory birds, but that is unlikely,” he said.

Once the threat of bird flu is removed and the compulsory housing order is lifted, ‘free range’ produce will continue to be marketed as it was prior to bird flu becoming an issue, Renaghan said.