Eggs: From Hen to Home
At the Farm
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This age old question has been debated by many scholars. While we may never all agree on which came first, we do know that how we get eggs to market has changed dramatically through the years.
Egg Production: Then and Now
As with all agricultural sectors, an increase in demand for poultry and eggs during World War II triggered the development of modern production practices. To meet the nutritional needs of more people on the same amount of land, with fewer workers, new breeding, feeding and management methods were required.
At the same time, science evolved. More was learned about food safety and food quality, as well as hens' needs. Soon we saw hens move from straw floors and farm yards to pens in highly automated barns.
Hens in Alberta are now housed in clean, well-ventilated buildings where temperature, humidity and lighting are controlled for year-round comfort. Fresh food and water are constantly available.
Most laying hens in Alberta are kept in pens. Eggs automatically roll from pens onto conveyor belts for prompt collection and refrigeration. Even manure management is much easier. Pen designs allow waste to drop right out of the pens into a manure disposal pit, keeping both the egg and hen clean and safe from disease.
A Little About Hens
The average laying hen today naturally produces more than 280 eggs a year - that's about one egg every 1½ days . Hens begin egg production at five to six months (19 weeks) of age and continue to lay for at least 12 months. The average registered egg producer in Alberta cares for about 9500 hens. By having different flocks of hens at different ages, there is a steady supply of eggs to the market, helping keep egg prices at a consistent level!
Click here to hear what it sounds like in a typical egg barn.
The most popular breed for egg production in Canada today is the White Leghorn - a small, white-feathered bird. Each stage of the hen's development cycle requires specialized care and attention. Chicks are hatched at hatcheries, raised in pullet operations (pullets are young hens less than 19 weeks of age), and then transferred to producers. Some producers run their own pullet operations.
Why are some eggs brown and some white? It is a matter of genes. Some breeds of hen such as the Rhode Island Red lay brown eggs, while others, like the White Leghorn, lay white eggs. Brown or white, there is no difference in nutritional value or cooking performance.
The Care and Feeding of Hens
Egg farmers in Alberta are committed to providing the best possible care to its layer hens for two key reasons - because humane treatment is morally right, and because healthy, well cared for hens produce safer and more eggs. It simply makes good business sense for egg farmers to treat their hens well!
They follow the 2003 Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Laying Hens, which was jointly developed in cooperation with government, the humane animal groups, veterinarians, animal scientists and industry.
In addition, the egg industry is actively involved with such organizations as the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association and the Alberta SPCA to ensure sound animal husbandry practices are used.
Extensive research has been done and continues to be done on the behavior of laying hens. Scientific research has clearly shown that birds like to be in small groups, be protected (the "pecking order" is a natural tendency of hens) and be allowed to cluster. The current pen size requirement in Canada for registered egg farmers, part of the Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Laying Hens, is a response to meeting the natural needs and preferences of hens. More research, supported by the egg industry, is currently underway to ensure we can even better meet hens' needs and preferences.
Carefully controlled lighting, temperature, air quality, feed, water, manure management and hen health monitoring are the ongoing responsibility and daily work of egg producers.
Hens are fed a diet of grain, protein, vitamins and minerals. The stringent Feed Regulations set and controlled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ensure only approved levels of approved ingredients and no deleterious ingredients (e.g. antibiotics, hormones) are in feed.
As with humans, vaccines are part of the normal preventative health program for hens. Vaccines increase hens' immunity, thereby greatly reducing the potential for illness/disease and subsequent need for antibiotics later in life.
In the very rare instances where antibiotics are required as "a last resort" treatment, they are administered at low rates for a short period and under strict supervision.
Strict biosecurity regulations and practices in and around the layer barn minimize the exposure of birds to disease/illness, thereby looking after the best interests of the hens, as well as ensuring the safest eggs possible. Strict biosecurity means strictly controlling who goes into the egg barn. As well, those who are allowed in, follow important steps.
Every aspect from feed to egg collection is controlled and monitored so the hen has a comfortable, safe environment.
|Egg collecting used to be like a game of hide and seek. Many eggs were lost or damaged in the process. Now, egg collection is done automatically as eggs, as soon as they are laid, gently roll down onto a moving belt.|| Eggs are gently hurried along on a moving belt to a central packing area.
All family members get involved.
|Here the eggs are placed in plastic, sanitized flats, 30 at a time, wide end up, to keep the yolk centred.||Flats are then placed on pallets and stored immediately in a cooler room chilled to 7° C or lower.||At this temperature, eggs retain their freshness and quality while awaiting shipment to a registered egg grading station - usually within four days.|
At the Egg Grading StationOnce the eggs reach the egg grading station, the second part of their journey begins. High-speed, electronically controlled equipment provides a continuous automated process to carry out the tasks of cleaning, candling, grading, sorting and packaging eggs for shipping to stores, restaurants, etc.
The first stop is a temperature-controlled storage room. Here the optimum temperature and humidity maintains the freshness and quality of the eggs until it's their turn for grading. Most eggs are graded within 24 hours of arriving at the station.
The grading process begins with flats of eggs being lifted onto an assembly line. Metal arms with suction cups gently lift the eggs from the flats onto a moving track. The eggs are then washed and sanitized in a high speed washer that gently scrubs the eggs. After washing, a thin film of odourless mineral oil may be applied to help seal the porous shell. From here, the interior as well as exterior of the eggs are examined using a process called candling.
Egg Candling During candling, eggs pass over a strong light. The light makes the interior of the egg visible and the exterior of the egg more visible. This allows the grader to inspect each and every egg. He/she can see the condition of the shell, the size of the air cell and whether the yolk is well centred (a sign that the white is thick, as it holds the yolk in position). Any eggs that do not meet grade A standards (eg. those that have a blood spot) are marked by the grader and removed from the production line by an electronic sensor.
There are three possible grades for eggs in Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada sets the regulations and standards for grading. Only the best make Canada Grade A.
|GRADE A: sold at retail store
||GRADE B : only a small percentage sold at retail stores; most go to further processing market
||GRADE C: not sold at retail stores; all go to further processing market
Look for the Canada Grade A symbol on the packaging of eggs you buy. This ensures top quality.
Next, eggs are sized, by weight, as follows:
||less than 42 g|
|Small:||at least 42 g|
|Medium:||at least 49 g|
|Large:||at least 56 g|
||at least 64 g|
|Jumbo:||at least 70 g|
Once eggs are weighed electronically, they are separated by size and directed to a cartoning station. Cartons are made of either plastic, foam or fibre (cardboard). Every carton is stamped to indicate the Best Before date. The Best Before date - by law - is the date until which the eggs will be of highest quality. It is usually 35 days after grading.
After cartoning, federal inspectors take random samples of the eggs for individual testing to make sure they meet grade A specifications.
Once approved, the graded eggs are shipped to supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, etc.
Eggs you buy at the store often arrive there within 7-10 days of being laid. That's fresh!
For more on egg quality and grades, click here. For fun egg cartons craft ideas, click here.
What Happens to All the Eggs?
Every year, the hens in Canada produce nearly a half billion dozen eggs (about 40 million dozen come from Alberta's hens).
Of these eggs, about 70% are sold in their shell. The remaining 30% are further processed into liquid, frozen or dried form. These processed eggs are used in the manufacturing of many foods, including mayonnaise, noodles and baked goods, as well as many non-foods such as pharmaceuticals, shampoo, pet food and adhesives.
The eggs set aside for these uses are sent to egg processing (egg breaking) plants. Special machines break eggs by the thousands and can separate yolks from whites. Whole or separated, the eggs are then pasteurized - and sometimes have preservatives or colour or flavour additives added. Though most processed eggs are sent in bulk form to bakeries, etc., a small percent (about 5%) go to grocery stores.
At the Grocery Store
Look for eggs in a refrigerated egg case in your grocery store. To ensure top quality, buy only Canada Grade A eggs. Also check the "Best Before" date on the carton. This date indicates the length of time the eggs will maintain their top quality.
To keep eggs as fresh and safe as possible, pick them up near the end of your grocery shopping, have them bagged with other perishable foods and get them in your home fridge as soon as possible.
Put them in your fridge as soon as you get home. Store them in the main body of the fridge, not on your fridge door. This keeps the eggs at a cooler, more consistent temperature. Regularly check to ensure your fridge is 4ºC (39ºF). Also, keep eggs in their original carton to prevent them from absorbing flavours and odours from stong-flavoured foods like onions, cheese, cabbage and some meats or fish. As well, the carton serves as a reminder to use them by the Best Before Date.
Enjoy the goodness of one of nature's most perfect foods!
Click here to learn more about egg care and safety "down on the egg farm."