The chicken and the egg: B.C. laying farms follow strict food-safety, animal-welfare standards

May 3, 2018

“They’ll tell us when they’re unhappy,” he says. “When you hear them cackling, that’s a good sign. We know what goes on in the barns, and we take care of everything.”

He and his colleagues go up and down the aisles of their laying farms multiple times per day, as part of their efforts to care for their flocks: first thing in the morning, at the end of the day, and at various times throughout for cleaning and maintenance. Their work, like that of all B.C. egg farmers, is carefully documented, and audited three times per year by the local organization BC Egg, once per year by the Egg Farmers of Canada and at least once every three years by third-party auditors.

It’s all part of the rigorous animal-welfare and food-safety standards B.C. egg farmers are required to follow to ensure their hens are healthy, clean and happy, and their eggs are safe to eat.

“We have some of the best food safety rules and animal care practices in the world,” says BC Egg executive director Katie Lowe. “We care about how the hens are treated, and we care about providing a safe, high-quality food for consumers. Eggs are in the majority of households, so it’s really important that we’re providing a high-quality product.”

Key to that effort is the Start Clean Stay Clean Program, which lays out rules producers must follow to keep farms sanitary and disease-free. In the barns, these regulations translate into day-to-day activities such as requiring workers to change clothes and shoes upon arrival — to mitigate the risk of bringing in contaminants — as well as thorough daily cleaning and careful monitoring of temperatures in onsite coolers where eggs are stored.

Salmonella is one of the biggest concerns, says Krahn.

“We spend a lot of time cleaning and disinfecting, and taking care of pests like rodents, because they can carry salmonella,” he says. Each farm is tested three times per flock cycle (the laying period for a particular group of hens) for the presence of salmonella.

“Our goal is to have a very, very safe product. If a farm does have salmonella in its environment, the eggs are not shipped to the table market,” says Lowe.

B.C. egg farmers must also follow a strict Animal Care Program that dictates welfare standards for laying hens, including the types of housing farmers may use, how they can handle and transport birds, barn air quality and temperatures for optimal health.

“At the end of the day, the important thing is the hens and the eggs that they lay,” Krahn says. “We have to make sure they’re healthy so we have a good product.”

B.C. egg farms are currently moving toward a new and even more prescriptive animal welfare standard, adds Lowe, based on the 2017-issued national Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens, developed with input from the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and animal scientists, among others.

“We want to be on the leading edge of that and following the most recent science,” she says. The new standard outlines detailed requirements for hens’ living quarters, including the type and nature of perches, and how much space each bird requires to move, feed, nest and scratch comfortably — particularly in cage-free and aviary-style barns, which are becoming prevalent in the B.C. market due to consumer demand.

Whatever the standard, the auditing process ensures B.C. farms follow it to the letter. When auditors note an infraction, there are consequences: farmers who don’t make corrective actions within a prescribed period can lose their quota (the number of hens they are allowed to have), essentially meaning they can no longer farm in B.C.

“It’s a pretty stiff penalty and we take our programs very seriously,” says Lowe. “We have standards, and we expect our producers to follow those. And our producers know what we expect of them.”

The end result is that B.C. consumers can buy eggs with confidence. To those who might still be concerned about food safety or animal welfare, Krahn has a suggestion: “I always say, if you have concerns, come out to my farm. We have an open-door policy,” he says. “We’re not shy about bringing consumers in to see our barns. We’re quite transparent about how we do things.”

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