PODCAST | June 6, 2023

The Cracked Egg: Bruce Richardson, Burnbrae Farms, Episode 5 Summary

Here is a summary of our chat with Bruce Richardson, Vice President of New Business Development & Industry Relations for Western Canada.

EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta

BF: Bruce Richardson, Burnbrae Farms

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity


EFA: The topic of our episode centers around egg grading and we are pleased to have one of the province’s two commercial egg graders, Burnbrae Farms on the podcast.

Have you ever been curious to know how eggs end up from the farm to the grocery store? While contrary to what some may think, all eggs that are produced in Alberta by the province’s, 170 egg farmers are required to make a stop at a certified CFIA grading station before they get to the grocery store shelf. For those of you who may not know, CFIA stands for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. While some farms have their own grading station on site, most eggs are sent from farm to one of Alberta’s two commercial graters Burnbrae Farms or Sparks Eggs. But before getting into more details surrounding this, let’s introduce you to this episode’s guest, Bruce Richardson. Bruce is Burnbrae’s vice president of new business development, producer, and industry relations in Western Canada. Welcome to The Cracked Egg, Bruce!

BF: Thanks, Tate! Appreciate you having me on board.

EFA: Before we get into the nitty gritty on what a grading station does, can you share a bit of background on yourself and Burnbrae?

BF: I started with Burnbrae Farms over 23 years ago, more on the sales side of the business. Covering western Canada and calling on all the major grocery stores, food service, wholesalers, and industrial counts. As I say in western Canada, Burnbrae Farms is a great family business. We’ve been in business for over 130 years as a farm and over 70 years as a grading station and poultry production in the egg business.

EFA: What are the key reasons that eggs have to stop at a grading station? Why is it that they just can’t go straight from a farm to the store?

BF: You had mentioned CFIA earlier. All grading stations in Canada are certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. And all eggs that come from commercial egg-laying production facilities must go through a grading station. But all the eggs that Burnbrae Farms sells have gone through the grading process.

EFA: Okay, now can you tell us step by step what happens when you receive pallets of eggs from farms to your facility and when they leave your facility?

BF: In Alberta here, we have egg farms as far north as Grand Prairie and as far south as Medicine Hat and even south of Medicine Hat and south of Lethbridge. Our trucks go out to these farms every week and collect their eggs; they’re all palletized. On pallets, there are 60, what we call 60 cases, and there’s 15 dozen to a case. So, 900 dozen eggs on a pallet. We have farms that will ship you one or two pallets to farms that will ship you over 20 pallets every week. These eggs are picked up at the farm, and then they travel back to our grading station here in Calgary where they are unloaded and put into what we call our ungraded cooler. And then these eggs are selected on a daily basis. If we’re running white eggs, we’ll try and run all the white eggs at one time. Or if we’re running organic eggs or specialty eggs, like an Omega-3, and I’ll get into that a little bit later, we try and maximize the efficiency of our machine and run all these eggs at once and put them into cartons or packaging that is ready for the customer.

EFA: Now the first step that eggs go through is getting cleaned and washed. Is that the reason why here in Canada that we recommend consumers refrigerate their eggs?

BF: All eggs must be refrigerated. In North America, not just Canada, but in the United States as well, we have washed eggs right from the beginning. Whenever you’re traveling, it always amazes you. If you go to the Caribbean or go to Europe or even Mexico, you see eggs that are not washed being sold just on an unrefrigerated shelf in the grocery store. The reason they can do this, is the hen, she’s a remarkable bird. She puts a little cuticle or protective layer on the outside of the egg. Then once we wash that membrane or that little cuticle off of the egg, the eggs do need to be refrigerated. They need to be under 10 degrees Celsius once they have been washed. So, in other parts of the world they don’t need to be washed but in North America, we do wash eggs for sure.

EFA: Now, another step at the facility is that eggs get candled. If you could just briefly explain what that entails and then what are some of the irregularities that you’re looking for?

BF: Candling came from well over 100 years ago, where people used to take an egg and they would hold it over a candle, and they could see inside the egg. And what they would be looking for would be whether the egg was fertilized or unfertilized or they could have been looking for a blood spot. Today, the candling bed is a big bright light. It’s probably about 4ft by 4ft and the eggs roll over that and we have a person in the candling booth or operator, they will be looking for irregularities in the eggs. That person would be looking for cracks, and blood spots. We call them dirts, but it’s where a feather or manure has stuck to the shell of the egg and didn’t come off in the wash processes.

EFA: Now if you notice any irregularities, what happens to that egg?

BF: All eggs that you’re buying in the grocery store, or at restaurants are what we call Canada Grade A eggs. And then you have grade B’s and C’s. B’s are regular form shells, and C’s would be cracks, but the inner membrane of the egg hasn’t been damaged. Those eggs will go to our further processing facility. We have one in Winnipeg, Manitoba. So those eggs would travel there and we’re making a lot of what we call further processed products. A further processing plant in the egg industry is very much like a dairy. It has pasteurization and homogenization; pasteurization is a period of time and temperature. And the eggs are pasteurized and sold and cartons, or we even sell them in large pails or even tanker loads to large industrial customers to make mayonnaise, salad dressings, ice cream, and fresh pasta products along those lines.

EFA: Having 170 farms in Alberta, how is it that you keep track of knowing which eggs are from which producer when they’re on their conveyor belt?

BF: I mentioned it earlier. We pick up from the farms and pallet load quantities and every pallet has a pallet tag on it and the farmer will write on there the date of lay, the name of their farm, and their pickup date. And when those eggs are all combined when our driver shows up, he’ll say, we have six pallets of eggs and we match those pallet tags. The machine operator will match those at the plant. And we run all of one farm at one time. It’s called the farmer’s grade out, that’s their report card, because it tells us the quality of their eggs, the sizing of their eggs, and it also helps us to pay the farmer every week.

EFA: Now, we have a variety of egg sizes. So how is it that you ensure jumbo-size eggs, for instance, don’t get mixed up with large eggs when they’re being packaged?

BF: After the eggs go through the candling process, they go across what we call a crack detector, which is a series of little taps to the egg. And if the egg is cracked, it’ll make a different sound than an egg that isn’t cracked. And then those eggs go across a scale, and then they go onto our grading machine. And our grading machine will pack 16 different what we call lanes or types of eggs at one time. So, all the eggs are weighed. It’s funny, we talk about eggs as small, medium, and large, but it’s not based on the size of the egg, but it’s based on the weight of the egg. An average hen is going to lay roughly 15% medium and small size eggs. And then the rest of our eggs, 80% to 85%, are going to be large and extra-large eggs.

EFA: Here’s a common question for you. Do you know the average amount of days that it takes for eggs to arrive at the grocery store?

BF: As I said earlier, we’re picking up eggs every week. And if eggs were laid this morning and our driver was there this afternoon, those eggs technically could be graded tomorrow morning and on their way to a grocery store the following day. So that would be the best case scenario. Anywhere from 3 to 10 days, maybe 7 days would be your average time from the date of lay until it hits the grocery store shelves.

EFA: And how many eggs can your facility process in a given 12-hour shift?

BF: We are a fully automated plant, and our plant here in Calgary is not as large as some of the ones we have in, in Ontario, but it would do about 100,000 dozen per day.

EFA: That’s a lot of eggs! With so much automated technology there, how have the roles of your employees changed?

BF: Well, I’m going to say eggs, originally there were a lot of grading stations all over Canada and you were really very much like the dairy industry. You were restricted by how far your horse and buggy could go if you wanted to get into primitiveness. There were grading stations as far as your horse and buggy could go and how close you were to the market. Alberta, now there are two main grading stations, and both of these grading stations, ourselves and Sparks, have large automated egg grading equipment. Labor in Alberta is fairly consistent, we have a very good workforce here at our Calgary plant and it’s very well managed. But we also try to automate and take any heavy labor out of the process or monotonous jobs out of the process where we can with automation. We’re adding robotics and case packers and automatic wrapping machines and the candling process. So more automation you can handle. We haven’t displaced jobs because we continue to grow as a company, but we’re trying to work smarter, not harder if you will.

EFA: Now you’ve been in the industry for a while. What’s something that you have learned that you would like to share with consumers who eat eggs?

BF: You know, it’s funny to ask that the thing that amazes me the most. If you think as a grocery shopper or a consumer, nothing’s more fragile than an egg! And if you think of how far that egg has to travel right from the hen being fed the proper diet to that egg being laid inside the barn, and that egg will travel the whole length of the barn, and it’s packed by the farmer at the barn. And then our driver picks them up and they get loaded onto a truck, unloaded off a truck, they go through the whole grading process, go into a cooler, loaded back onto a truck I know I’m sounding like I’m going on. Then they get unloaded at the grocery store, they get loaded by the consumer. Most consumers open every carton and look for cracked eggs. I think what amazes me the most is that there aren’t as many cracked eggs as I thought there would be. So that egg travels a long way before it gets to the dinner table.

EFA: It seems what’s most popular at grocery stores are those larger, extra-large size eggs. What happens with the smaller sizes? Do other industries use them?

BF: Absolutely. Like I was saying earlier, the eggs, the smaller are what we call off sizes of eggs, or off grades of eggs will go to a further processing plant. And those eggs are used for anything from pet food too, as I was saying earlier, mayonnaise. Or there are a lot of restaurants and bakeries that are using liquid eggs that have already been pasteurized. It’s safer for them to use that in their processes in their restaurants and bakeries. One thing, and I kind of glossed over it, is, you know, for Burnbrae Farms, our job is to offer choice. And the choice 30 years ago was a large egg or a medium egg or a jumbo egg. Now, the choice, you have large white eggs, and large brown eggs. We have organic eggs, free-run eggs, free range eggs. We have nutritionally enhanced eggs. We call it Omega-3 or Omega Plus. At the end of the day, we want to offer our customers, which are the retailer’s choice, so that they can offer choice to what we call the consumer when they stand in front of that counter. Sometimes you have an eight-foot wall of eggs if you’re in a large account. And the consumer, they make their choice, whether it’s based on animal husbandry, whether it’s price nutrition. We’re very proud to say that we offer a wide range of value-added products.

EFA: Here’s another interesting question. So occasionally someone might crack open an egg and see two yolks inside. What does that mean and how often would a hand lay an egg that has two yolks?

BF: It’s funny, I had somebody send something to our website one time saying that our eggs are being genetically modified, and we got a double yolk, and they were going to report us and they were going to take it to the news. And then the news station got a hold of me. I said listen. This is Mother Nature. I said, when she’s young, a hen starts laying eggs at about 19 weeks of age. And when she hasn’t matured into the laying process or the laying cycle, she’ll drop two yolks, also known as the eggs. And when she’s putting the albumin or the egg white around it, then she has the shell around it. So it’s just like twins. And it usually happens from about 20 weeks of age, and it’s almost a mistake, if you will, for her, but it’ll happen, say, from 20 weeks of age to 25 or 26 weeks of age. Less than one-half a percent of a hen’s production would be a double yolk egg. And they are not genetically modified or altered or anything like that. It’s Mother Nature at its finest.

EFA: Great to know. Well, that is a wrap on today’s episode. If you are interested in learning more about Burnbrae Farms, you can check them out here. That was plenty of information you, Bruce, provided us here about eggs at the grading station and some really great takeaways from the chat today. Thank you, Bruce, for joining us here.

BF: Tate, thanks for the opportunity to talk about eggs. It’s a great product!