Consumers could be hit with higher egg prices as UK farmers reduce their flock numbers, in response to escalating costs and insufficient profit margins.
The numbers of chicks being placed by egg producers in April was down 15% year on year, according to the latest government figures.
Egg farmers have been warning for months that a “tidal wave” of rising costs in feed, energy, labour and packaging was not being reflected in retail prices.
They have criticised supermarkets for ignoring industry warnings, with a leading producer telling delegates at the British Pig and Poultry Fair last week he expected a shortage of eggs later this year given the cuts in chick placings.
The government data, published on Thursday, confirms a decline in producers restocking their flocks with new birds. The number of eggs being set by hatcheries fell even further in April, down 35% on the previous year.
The number of chicks being placed by egg producers indicates the number of eggs that will be available to consumers in the months ahead.
Hen eggs take about 21 days to hatch, but chicks do not start laying until they are aged about 20 weeks. Any reduction in chicks now will not affect the availability of eggs until the autumn.
The existing hens on farms will continue producing eggs until they are 70 to 80 weeks old, but the overall flock population will fall as hens are not replaced.
“It’s showing what we were predicting, that there will be a shortage unless retailers respond by raising prices,” said Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British FreeRange Egg Producers Association.
Gooch says producers need a 3p per egg price increase to forestall a much bigger price rise when supplies fall later this year. Retail egg prices in May were up by about 8%, or 15p, per half dozen from last year, according to Trolley.co.uk, a supermarket price tracker.
“If you were making money you wouldn’t do it [not restock]. You only do it because you can’t make a profit. It’s a crisis for producers and it will translate into a crisis for consumers later this year,” said Gooch.
Andrew Opie, from the British Retail Consortium, said supermarkets sourced most of their food from the UK and “know they need to pay a sustainable price to farmers to ensure British eggs remain on the shelves”.
A spokesperson for the British Egg Industry Council said chick placements did historically rise and fall depending on factors such as how long producers decide to keep their existing hens before replacing them. “However, with the current cost crisis, some producers are choosing not to repopulate their houses.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We recognise the challenges faced by the egg industry, including the ongoing impact of Avian Influenza and increased input costs – and are continuing to monitor the situation, working closely with stakeholders.”
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