“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid.”
Mark Twain, American Humourist 1835-1910
Now that spring is here, Easter is just around the corner and eggs are a hot item on the farm stands. For eating or colouring, with the surge in egg sales come the annual public service announcements about safe food handling with eggs. So a few years ago it came as a bit of a surprise to hear about two initiatives that make farm fresh eggs even easier to get in the morning. In Vancouver , the city council approved backyard hens for city dwellers. And on Vancouver Island, Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) announced a policy to allow ungraded eggs to be sold to retail outlets and restaurants. As a poultry scientist by training – a very rare profession these days – I was amused, dismayed and quite pleased – all at the same time. I was personally pleased to see so many people interested in keeping chickens and having access to local eggs.
I was amused because the Vancouver city council was told by their local food policy group that hens would not create noise or be a nuisance. Roosters are known to be noisy, so of course they are banned. But roosters aren’t the only noisy ones; anyone who owns even just a few chickens know how just down right noisy chickens can be, especially at the point when the egg comes out. They can completely denude a lawn in no time, dig up your favourite bulbs, and rearrange your tool shed as they look for a new spot to lay. And chickens are nibblers by nature. They eat constantly, and poop constantly as a result. Now, historically backyard chickens were common. They represented an easy to keep food source that would glean loose grain, forage and happily eat food scraps and bugs. At one point the country in the city thing was outlawed, and if it isn’t handled properly it could be outlawed again. It is popular by a variety of urbanites in both the US and Canada, and a humorous documentary, “Mad City Chickens”, is about folks who happily embrace backyard chicken rearing. It should be noted that both the SPCA and the Humane Society voiced their concerns about the backyard rearing of chickens on humane grounds, and since I occasionally see the abandonment of unwanted chickens (as was the group of bantam roosters dropped off at the Nu-To-You a couple of years ago) I have concerns as well. Those with romantic notions may soon change their minds, since chickens are a responsibility like any animal.
As for the VIHA policy change on ungraded eggs, I was surprised at the complete turnaround by VIHA. So was the BC Centre of Disease Control, who was not consulted before the news was announced. The BCCDC asked Health Canada to do a health risk assessment before any more decisions are made. A source at BCCDC said that proper labelling may be all that is necessary to ensure the source of the eggs. I don't know the result of the health assessment, or if one was done. I do know that Salmonella has been of concern since cases in consumers have been increasing significantly since 2004, and traced to the sale of ungraded eggs to restaurants primarily from broiler breeder operations. It is not known how many undiagnosed and untraced cases of Salmonella have occurred. The BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands (BCMAL) enforces the legislation concerning the sale of ungraded eggs off the farm site. The legislation pertaining to the sale of ungraded eggs is the “BC Agricultural Produce Grading Act” with the associated regulations, including the “Shell Egg Grading Regulations”.
Currently, according to provincial legislation and regulations, eggs can be sold legally to the consumer directly on the farm premises or on a farm stand, but not off the farm premises (e.g., farmers markets, etc). The consumer is a person who buys these eggs for their own personal consumption, and not for resale to the public (e.g., retailers, restaurants, farmers markets). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is also involved, and is concerned about the selling of ungraded eggs in cartons that still bear the “Canada A” maple leaf symbol as there are legal and labelling implications. A consumer may not realize that the eggs are ungraded, if they are in a recycled carton from graded eggs. All producers should put their own label on, clearly indicating the name and contact number for the farm.
If we go back to 2004, how many people remember the ruckus at Salt Spring Farmers’ Market when VIHA came to confiscate the eggs being sold by the farmers there? A complete about face was made by VIHA because of a vocal food group that demanded local eggs be available to the public. The reason the BC Shell Egg Grading Regulation allows farm gate sales is because the consumer is completely aware they are buying farm eggs at that point. As long as the consumer buys from the farmer, there is complete traceability in case of a problem.
To add to all of the confusion, the provincial poultry specialist retired this year and it is not known when, or if, there will be a replacement. This is very bad timing on the part of the provincial government, especially with the increased interest in keeping chickens by people with no prior experience, concerns for flock and human health, and a need for support and education for all poultry producers.