Bird flu quarantines organic chickens from Pennsylvania to France

CHICAGO/PARIS, May 2 (Reuters) – Organic and free-range chickens have been confined.

Laying hens that normally have access to the outdoors can no longer roam as freely or feel the sun on their beaks, as some US and European farmers temporarily keep their flocks indoors during deadly bird flu outbreaks, according to the egg producers and industry representatives.

The change comes as a surprise to buyers who are already shelling out more money for eggs due to culling of infected flocks. Read more Consumers pay extra for specialty eggs, thinking they come from hens that can venture out of the barn.

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US watchdogs say egg retailers and makers must do a better job of informing customers that hens are being kept indoors, as shoppers track spending amid record global food inflation . Keeping the birds indoors is safest for now, government officials say, as a single case of bird flu leads to the culling of entire flocks. The virus can also infect humans, although experts say the risk is low. Read more

In France, where the government has temporarily forced farmers to keep chickens indoors since November, some retailers are defying requirements to display clear consumer information about the mandate, according to grocery store audits by Reuters.

“I didn’t know they had to stay indoors,” said Josephine Barit, 34, a customer at a small Parisian store who had no indication that any chickens might have been confined.

“So it’s not really ‘free range’ anymore?” she says. “I guess there is no other choice because of the bird flu, but they could tell.”

It is believed that letting chickens spend time outdoors is more humane, giving consumers some peace of mind when buying farmed products.

Veterinarians say poultry with access to the outdoors are particularly susceptible to infection with bird flu, officially known as highly pathogenic avian influenza or HPAI, as migrating birds spread the disease. Poultry can become ill from contact with infected wild birds, their feathers or their droppings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends farmers keep poultry indoors “while the HPAI outbreak is ongoing,” but did not require containment.

The epidemic in the United States is the second worst in history, with more than 35 million birds wiped out this year. France culled nearly 16 million birds in its worst outbreak to date, while infections have also hit countries including Britain, Italy and Spain. Read more

European chicken containment requirements have left some consumers unsatisfied, even when retailers display signs informing customers of the change.

“At the end of the day, you’re still paying the price for ‘free-range’ or organic eggs when poultry has actually never seen the sky,” said Marc Dossem, 52, a buyer who expressed in a large supermarket in Paris.

EU and UK marketing standards allow laying hens to be kept indoors free-range for up to 16 weeks before companies must issue advisories to customers.

Britain has temporarily required eggs from ‘free-range’ hens kept indoors to be labeled ‘barn eggs’, but has allowed farmers to let hens out again from May. Read more

In Spain, hens must be kept indoors in special risk and surveillance areas of the country, said Mar Fernández, Spanish head of the Interprofessional Organization of Eggs and Egg Products. They haven’t been inside for more than 16 weeks, she said.

“There are countries that haven’t had free-range eggs available for months,” Fernández said. U.S. authorities do not require organic egg producers to update labels when unexpected events like avian flu change production practices, the Department of Agriculture said. Eggs labeled “organic” as well as “free-range” must come from hens with outdoor access in the United States.

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

“We will constantly assess the risk of exposure and get them back out into the sun as soon as possible,” Pete and Gerry said.

Vital Farms Inc (VITL.O), another U.S. pasture-raised egg producer, said it confined hens after outbreaks in Europe. Both producers have information online about the change, but their “free range” and “grass-fed” labels remain the same.

Whole Foods, Kroger and Target Corp. (TGT.N) did not answer questions about whether they would display reviews for buyers.

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

Some European producers are resisting orders to confine poultry, despite the risks.

“The laying hens can be quite aggressive, so we let them out a bit every day or they will kill each other,” said Emilie Ravalli, who runs an organic farm in Corcoue-sur-Logne in the west of France.

But coops can be cozy, and chickens don’t always come out every day, even when they can, said Gregory Martin, a poultry scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

“Containment gives us security,” Martin said. “Only living birds produce eggs, so it is to our advantage to protect our birds.”

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Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt in London and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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