Free-range egg farmers, struggling with record low packing station prices, are furious at the decision by Somerfield, the fifth-largest supermarket chain in the UK, to source 40% of its free-range needs from northern France.

“I’ve never known [the members] to be so angry in the 16 years that I’ve been doing this job,” said John Widdowson of the British Free Range Egg Producer Association. He blames the supermarkets for paying prices that left no margin for new investments. The flow of farmers diversifying into free-range eggs had dried up, he added.

Mark Williams, executive officer of the British Egg Industry Council, said a further disincentive was the growing difficulty of acquiring planning permission for free range.

Michael Kent, head of Noble Foods, told a Deans/Stonegate meeting in Exeter that packers had two choices – either they failed to meet orders, in which case someone else would, or they imported.

It was vital to get the expansion programme back on track and that could only be achieved by putting more money into the pockets of producers. “That message has now hit home with retailers and we are negotiating for a significant increase for producers,” said Mr Kent.

In what the retailer described as a “short-term measure”, 60% of the 1000 Somerfield stores would stock British free-range eggs, with the imports at 40%. Egg buyer Marc Matthews described the shortfall as “significant – often over half of our base volumes. However, we are committed to returning to 100% [home production] as soon as we can identify more UK supplies”.

Free range accounts for 45% of Somerfield’s total egg sales. Egg boxes would be labelled “product of France” from day one, said Mr Matthews, but would not carry Somerfield’s own label. That would come later if British eggs remained in short supply.

“Eventually, if we cannot secure more British free-range eggs, they will be marketed as own label, but identified as French,” he added. The first eggs appeared on shelves on 27 November with a notice explaining the situation.

Peter Kendall, NFU president, announced at a Lloyds TSB Agricultural Office event on 23 November that the NFU would write to all the big retailers to point out that importing free-range eggs from Europe would breach their commitment to applying the same UK standards to overseas suppliers, because standards were lower on the Continent. Stocking densities there were 2500 birds/ha (1012/acre) instead of 1000/ha (405/acre) in the UK.