IN A surprise move, DEFRA has given the majority of organic egg producers another five years to comply with the new EU standards on stocking density and flock size.

Confounding those who believed that Ministers had a deaf ear on rural issues, farming minister Ben Bradshaw has extended the existing derogation to fall in line with the rest of the EU.

Those organic egg producers whose buildings were in place before Aug 24 1999, can now continue at the existing densities until 2010. These include many of the largest organic egg producers in the UK.

The move follows a campaign by the egg sector to overturn a decision by ACOS, the Government‘s own advisory committee on organic standards, to recommended ending the derogation in 2005.

This would have reduced in-house stocking density from nine birds per square metre to six, and brought down the maximum flock size from 12,000 birds to 3,000, five years ahead of the EU.

Until the change of heart, DEFRA was being accused of yet another case of gold-plating of EU rules.

Now Mr Bradshaw has been able to claim that his decision will put UK producers on an even footing with those in the rest of Europe.

“I‘ve carefully considered the representations my Department has received,” he explained.

“I‘ve weighed up the effects on the organic poultry sector as a whole, including those producers already complying with lower stocking densities, and I have decided that producers should benefit from the derogation until 2010, in line with the producers in Europe.”

DEFRA reports that after officials wrote to the industry for their views in July, 21 responses were received, among them the NFU, individual producers, industry associations, certification bodies and the multiples.

The majority proposed that the date for the expiry of the derogation should be the same as the date in the EU regulation: 2010.

Mark Williams, chief executive at the British Egg Industry Council, said it was “fantastic news”.

“I‘m glad the Minister has taken note of the industry‘s lobbying efforts.”

Tom Vesey, chairman of the British Free range Egg Producers association, admitted he was “very surprised”.

“I certainly welcome it on behalf of the egg industry as a whole. I accept that some producers have spent money on meeting the higher standards and will be upset, but all new entrants will have to meet the new standards.

“The big operators were particularly worried and will be happy with this.”

As an association, BFREPA had been concerned that many of these larger units would feel organic production had become too expensive and would pull out, flooding the free range market, and also leading to a shortage of organic eggs and a need to import.

“Industry wide it‘s a good thing and we are delighted with it.”

Richard Jacobs, business manager at certification body Organic Farmers and Growers, said it was an important decision for the majority of organic egg producers.

“If the derogation had been ended they would have faced a serious obstacle in competing with their counterparts on the continent.

“We sat down with Ben Bradshaw to discuss this issue and it is gratifying to know that DEFRA and the Minister are listening to those with a stake in the industry, and are willing to take hard decisions when required.”

“We are sensitive to the fact there are producers not covered by the derogation who are going to feel at a disadvantage, but we sincerely hope that as they are already working within the parameters available to them, they will continue to succeed.”