John Retson, former chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association (BFREPA), has warned of an impending crisis in organic pullet rearing unless the European Union acts urgently to extend an existing derogation to the union’s organic rules.
The derogation allows the use of five per cent non-organic feed in the organic ration and the use of part organic pullets, but the derogation is, as things stand, due to end on December 31 this year. It is widely believed that there will be a decision to extend it, and it is thought that EU officials are due to meet in July to discuss how long such an extension should be, but John Retson says that the cur-rent uncertainty could result in organic pullets rearers deciding not to risk ordering chicks.
John, whose business JSR Services has rearing farms in Perthshire, Stirlingshire, Ayrshire and Lan-arkshire, rears between 150,000 and 200,000 organic pullets each year. He says that any rearer or-dering chicks now is taking a risk. “I need to be placing orders for chicks now to rear pullets for December. But as things stand, the pullets I reared from the chicks I ordered now could be illegal by December, so to orders those chicks at the moment is to take a risk.”
He said he would be having to gamble on someone deciding to extend the derogation. “That is a big risk and for some pullet rearers it may be too big a risk to take. They may well decide not to order chicks until they know for sure what the rules will be,” said John.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has raised its concerns about the ending of the five per cent derogation and it says it is continuing to speak to the EU and other stakeholders about develop-ments, although there has so far been no agreement. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been pressing for a decision on the issue, and the European Commission is believed to have said that it intends to come up with a proposal for discussion in July. This, says John Retson, could be too long to wait for some pullet rearers. “We need a decision now. We need to know what the rules will be so we can order the chicks.”
Defra has been pressing the need for certainty for the industry, and it is understood that a number of other EU member states have also called for clarity. However, the Commission is thought to have said that it could not come up with a solution earlier than July because of the legal process it needs to follow. The Commission says it will have a clear view of its plans in July and it believes that this should give the industry sufficient time to plan for the end of 2014.
The British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association (BFREPA) is asking for an extension of the current derogation until the Commission’s reform of the organic rules is due to come into force in 2017. The Commission may well resist an extension of such length, despite support from other member states. The Commission, it is thought, may be looking at a shorter extension.
The derogation was originally due to finish at the end of 2011, with producers expected to use 100 per cent organic feed from January 1, 2012. However, it was extended to the end of 2014 after in-dustry representatives argued that there was insufficient quantity or quality of organic feed to allow producers to feed a 100 per cent organic diet.
The industry made its argument on welfare grounds, saying that feeding animals lower quality diets could lead to stress on nutritional requirements, which would significantly impact on animal wel-fare. It said this could potentially damage the organic brand. The Commission also followed the ad-vice of the EU Organic Expert Group in extending the derogation.
That decision was taken late by the Commission, with the extension having to be applied retrospec-tively after legislation to continue the derogation was introduced in 2012. John Retson says that the EU has, once again, waited too long to act. “This is typical. We should not have come out of a meeting in Brussels without something in place,” said John. “A decision should have been taken already and we need one now to know what we are ordering from the hatcheries.”
Asked how his customers were responding to what was happening, John said, “Our customers trust us. They assume it will not happen, but that is not necessarily the case. We need some certainty to know what we should be doing. Rearers could end up losing a significant amount of money if they order chicks only to find that their pullets are illegal come December. We have to place orders now. What are we supposed to do? Rearers may be prepared to take one calculated risk. But what if things are still not sorted? Will they take another one? Will they keep on or will they decide that it is just too much and decide instead not to carry on?”
The European Commission recently released its draft proposal on what it believes new organic reg-ulations should look like in the years ahead. Tom Lander NFU food chain adviser said at the time, “The rules governing the European organic market are already very stringent and whilst we accept improvements can be made in certain areas, a level of pragmatism at European level needs to be maintained in the development of these proposals. However, two of the NFU’s primary concerns are with the existing regulation which proposes to bring to an end the five per cent non-organic feed and part organic pullet derogations on the 31 December 2014,” he said.