Free-range egg producer slams cost-sharing proposals

A major free-range egg company has criticised DEFRA’s cost-sharing proposals for dealing with exotic livestock diseases by labelling it as “another tax on poultry producers”.

Poultry producers are being asked to pay a livestock levy of £0.04 per bird place towards the cost of surveillance and preparation for outbreaks of exotic diseases. But any producer with fewer than 397 birds will be exempt under current proposals.

John Bowler, managing director of independently-owned free-range egg company John Bowler’s Eggs, said: “The proposed system does not differentiate between larger commercial producers, who already invest in sound health and biosecurity measures as a matter of course, and those higher risk flocks, predominantly smaller, who don’t.”

“The larger producers subject to the levy would, therefore, be paying twice, and it concerns me that the small-scale and backyard flocks would be exempt given that they could be the ones to aggravate the situation if avian flu, for example, was found.

“Every one of Bowler’s producers, including my own farms, already carry out thorough vaccination programmes, farm health planning, and have top notch biosecurity measures in place, which is indeed the case for the vast majority of larger-scale UK producers who, between them, supply most of the country’s eggs.”

Mr Bowler continued: “DEFRA has suggested that future payments could be based on an assessment of each farm’s specific risks, but why not do the risk assessments before introducing this scheme? And will they assess ‘risk’ according to history of disease in each industry or according to perceived risk?

“For instance, in the time I have been in the industry, avian flu has only occurred in this country in housed birds, yet the perceived risk is that wild migrating birds bring it on to the range and infect free-range birds. Would we be penalised for this in the long term as they are re-assessing every year?”

He urges the government to consider alternatives to the proposals. “The hatcheries could collect the levy so no one misses out on supporting the cause,” he suggests. “They could be paid for doing so and save administrative costs in the process. Or perhaps agricultural grants and subsidies should be stopped or lowered to pay for this – why give it with one hand and take it back with the other?”

Mr Bowler concluded that the proposals as they stand will mean more admin and more regulatory bodies to deal with, with no visible gain to producers or consumers.

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