Cracking the Egg Code
by Cynthia Peters
Have you ever been confused reading the multitude of egg carton labels at the grocery store?
Years ago, it was simple – brown or white. With family scale egg farmers on the rise and expanding commercial offerings, consumers have more choices then ever before when it comes to choosing their preferred eggs.
All across Canada, dotted along country roads, are large steel framed windowless buildings, many of which are home to approximately 20,000 chickens. This is the typical size of an egg farm according to Burnbrae Farms, one of Canada’s leading producers. The world of egg farm housing practices usually fall into one of the following categories:
Conventional – hens live in small, wired cages in groups of five to seven birds, with no escape.
Enriched – birds (16 to 60) are free to perch and lay eggs in a nesting area.
Free-Run – birds are able to live free in an enclosed barn and have nesting boxes.
Free-Range – is the most open option, as hens have the same life as free-run, but have access to the great outdoors.
In February, the Egg Farmers of Canada announced that they are significantly reducing conventional housing beginning this year, due to new scientific research and changing consumer preferences. Presently about 90% of egg production is conventional. Over the next eight years the organization and its members hope to reduce conventional to 50%, and in 15 years to 15%, and replacing conventional with the alternative methods of enriched, free-run and free-range.
All of the above housing methods are not regulated though or verified by third-party inspectors. Nor do the latter methods necessarily provide more space. When free-range housing is defined, the term “access” can be misleading.
In Canada, “access” means the potential for outdoor playtime in a fenced or screened in area. And while the barn door is always open, the majority of hens that are given access prefer to stay inside the comfort of the barn where the temperature is controlled and the supply of water and food are abundant. Outside is unfamiliar territory, as their entire life has been in a barn.
In Ontario, certified organic eggs have the most stringent rules and are verified as being cage-free. Certified organic eggs come from hens that are only fed organic feed and no animal by-products. Producers have been inspected to make sure their chickens are kept in free-range or free-run conditions. In addition, the farmers are given a minimum space allowance far higher than the industry norm. Organic farms can also be large commercial operations, like Yorkshire Valley Farms in Ontario. And while given access, the guarantee only pertains to the inside conditions of free-range or free-run. Outside access is given, but the hen gets to decide.
If pasture raised hens are an important deciding factor, buyers have to know the farm where their eggs are coming from and understand their practices.
On the smaller producer side, there are many family scale farmers like Gerry Jenkinson and her husband Don Wilford of Chase Farm in Prince Edward County. While not certified organic, they practice the same standards and principles of organic farming. Gerry and Don have 18 happy hens that have their own custom-made coop and are fed high quality organic feed (which contains oyster shells that assist with calcium intake). On the lifestyle front, they enjoy a daily romp around the farmyards, eating grass, bugs and scratching till their hearts content.
Chase Farm started their small egg production business three years ago when the couple decided to move full-time to the County. Not a stranger to chickens, Gerry’s grandparents raised a brood of hens in England. It was her job as a child to collect the eggs. These memories, coupled with their love of fresh food and animals, became the winning combination to launch the farm. Chase Farm eggs come in a variety of colours due to the many breeds that roam the grounds including Barred Plymouth Rock (brown shells), Easter Egger (green shells) Naked Neck (pale buff shells) and Cornish Bantam (white shells).
A hen’s diet is also a key contributor to the taste and colour of the yolks. Typically, pasture-fed chickens have deeper yellow and creamier yolks. According to a study carried out in the United States in 2009, pasture fed eggs compared to commercially raised USDA eggs, have a third less cholesterol, a quarter less saturated fat, and more vitamin A and E.
Nutritionally, all eggs are a great, low-cost source of protein. Easy to store and provide endless possibilities at mealtime. Overall, Canadians are big consumer of eggs with just over 40 million commercially produced in 2015 according to the Egg Farmers of Canada. The most popular size being large at 19 million. In Ontario, the demand outweighs the supply. The province imported over 900,000 eggs last year from Manitoba.
With the tidal wave of urban and rural food warriors raising their own food can the import gap be shrunk?
Let’s get crack ‘in.