Organic pullets under fire

ANOTHER CRISIS has erupted in the organic egg sector after Brussels announced new rules in the run-up to Christmas on sourcing point-of-lay pullets.

A change in the rules had been expected by the industry, but the path taken by the Commission has surprised and dismayed everyone connected with the organic sector.

It will mean the introduction of ‘semi-organic‘ pullets, which will not be properly certified and may discourage rearers from getting involved, leading to chronic shortages of pullets.

The issue centres on where organic egg producers get their pullets from.

There are currently no EU standards for producing point-of-lay pullets for organic units, and most of the industry has been operating under an EU derogation that allows conventionally-reared pullets to be used.

There is a further complication in that the Soil Association does not permit this derogation, and has introduced its own unilateral standards on its registered egg producers.

However, the rest of the organic egg sector, most of which is registered with Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), has been operating under the derogation and using conventional pullets.

It had been expected that Brussels would extend the derogation for another 18 months, at the same time announcing new EU standards for organic pullets that would become compulsory when the 18 months was up, allowing time for dedicated rearing units to come on stream.

However, the Commission has failed to come up with an organic standard for rearing pullets.

Instead, Brussels has extended the existing derogation until the end of 2005 only, after which the industry will need to utilize a ‘semi-organic‘ pullet that has simply been given organic feed and reared to organic veterinary standards.

At OF&G, business manager Richard Jacobs called the new arrangements a “major bombshell”.

He believes that Brussels was bounced into a quick fix for the problem when it turned its attention to the matter too late, and realised the derogation was about to run out.

He pointed out that a lot of time and effort was spent as long ago as 2002/03 in drawing up a proposed organic pullet standard, clearing it with Defra and then getting it submitted to the Commission.

“Nothing more was heard of it after that,” said Mr Jacobs.

He identifies serious difficulties with the current plan. “A big problem for us is the part-organic standard,” he explained.

“We have no system for registering such pullet rearers, which means there can be no policing of the standard.”

DEFRA has suggested organic egg producers adopt a simple contract with their chosen pullet rearer, but Mr Jacob feels such an arrangement is by its nature open to abuse.
He also doubts whether conventional pullet rearers would be interested in the system.

It would mean having separate rearing facilities for the birds destined for organic units, or else feeding all the birds on organic rations – a prohibitively expensive option.

If a proper organic pullet standard had been introduced, he believes that dedicated rearers would have entered the market.

“I have spoken to the rearers who were considering setting themselves up, but now they say there‘s no point. It‘s a disaster.”

Mr Jacobs rejects the idea of OF&G introducing its own organic standard, following the lead of the Soil Association.

“Our policy at OF&G is always to stay within the rules that apply to the rest of the EU, so that UK producers are not put at a disadvantage.”