A decision by the European Commission not to extend the free-range exemption for those who have been forced to house their flocks as a result of bird flu outbreaks, has been criticised by two of Northern Ireland’s MEPs.
EU rules mean that the eggs and meat from birds kept indoors through housing orders beyond this 12 week period lose their free range status.
The DUP’s Diane Dodds said that not for the first time, the European Commission this week failed to recognise that exceptional measures are needed to address exceptional circumstances in agriculture.
She added: “Free range egg producers were denied a much-needed extension to the 12 week free-range status of poultry, which have been subject to the compulsory housing order.
“I am bitterly disappointed that the Commissioner in particular could not deliver on the need for this extension. Farmers have been forced into this situation through no fault of their own and to ensure the safety of both their birds and consumers. The Commission now sees fit to effectively inflict more pain on the industry at this time.”
Mrs Dodds said free-range farmers now find themselves in a position where the value-added component of their product has been removed, and in some cases this will have an estimated 20-30% reduction in income.
She added: “In addition, the cost of re-labelling, repackaging and competing in a different market need to be taken into consideration. It is clear that the Commissioner feels extending the exemption would potentially damage the free range brand. However with the right information and a well-resourced media campaign I believe consumers would understand the reasons to extend the exemption and the damage it could prevent among farmers and their businesses.
“It will come as no surprise that I am frustrated at the way and speed by which the European Commission has acted to tackle emergency or crisis situations in the industry. Whether that be in this case of extending the free-range exemption or indeed acting to protect dairy farmers in the volatile market place over the past two years, the EU has been found wanting.
“Ultimately, we need a better system to protect farmers in difficult times. I will continue to do my bit in this Parliament to make sure that through Brexit negotiations to come we have measures in place to deal with these issues more effectively.”
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has also expressed his disappointment at the European Commission’s refusal to extend the 12 week derogation covering free-range poultry housed in response to the avian influenza outbreak.
Commenting Mr Nicholson said: “I am extremely disappointed with the Commissioner’s response to the problems facing free range poultry farmers who have been ordered to house their birds in response to the avian influenza outbreak.
“This is very clearly a situation of force majeure and requires a more understanding response from the EU Commission, which has once again shown that it is unable to respond to the needs of industry when it is in real need of support.”
He added: “I would urge all poultry farmers to maintain their vigilance at this time and to be mindful of the relevant biosecurity advice.”