City chickens, country eggs

Photo by Republica

For some city foodies, eggs are the next big trend. Not the kind you buy at your local grocery, but the farm-fresh variety from freeroaming hens that eat seeds and bugs on grazing pastures. These “alternative” eggs are quickly making their way into artisan bakeries and gourmet restaurants. The bright orange yolk is so savoury, it’s no surprise that demand for the creamier option is far exceeding supply.

These eggs could be sold the day they’re laid, but not beyond the front gates of the small, organic farms that produce them. According to the Ontario Ministry of Food and Agricultural Affairs, all eggs retailed beyond the farm gate must be graded for quality. It can take up to three days for eggs from the farm to reach grocery stores.

Likewise, farms that have more than 99 laying hens must pay for a certain share in the production market. For farms trying to meet growing demand, this can cost hundreds of dollars per hen, depending on the province. This makes farm-fresh eggs even less available to consumers.

A February 2010 Globe and Mail article reports that this has created a hushed underground market, where farm-fresh eggs are kept out of sight and access is limited to people who “know the password.”

For those not in the know, the lack of farm-fresh eggs in mainstream markets makes “backyard chickens”—hens raised privately in individual backyards—an attractive alternative. Tom Henry, editor of Small Farm Canada, says once people taste the alternative, “industrial chickens and eggs don’t look good. People are asking for free-range or organic, but the bulk of eggs in the supermarkets are not.”

“Mary,” who asked her real name not be used, bought her first backyard chicken in 2007, even though it’s currently illegal to raise backyard chickens in Toronto. But, Mary, owner of torontochickens.com, was frustrated with the lack of alternatives. Motivated by concerns for food security, animal welfare, and the disparity between consumers and food producers, she turned to urban chickens as a way of taking control.

“We’re so dependent on food labels to understand what’s in our food because we don’t know where it’s made,” says Mary. Even certified organic labels aren’t enough to guarantee quality. In Mary’s opinion, having backyard hens means “being able to control the quality [yourself].”

Egg Farmers of Canada, the national marketing agency for eggs, claims the contrary. With recent listeriosis and avian flu outbreaks, consumers are increasingly concerned for the safety and regulation of eggs, says Laurent Souligny, the agency’s chairman. “And that’s what we spend a lot of time on. We want to make sure the eggs get to the consumer, and that they are safe to eat.”

However, factory farming exacerbates the risks of virulent strains of avian flu in the poultry industry, according the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In recent avian flu cases, the existence of food safety standards failed to prevent outbreaks, and overcrowded animal conditions foster the spread of pandemics.

These impacts are pushing concerned consumers towards organic options. According to Agriculture Canada, Canadian egg consumption has dropped over the past decade, but sales of organic and free-range eggs are increasing every year by nearly 20 percent.

Beyond the panic for organic, people still want backyard hens.

Bill Bruce, head of the City of Calgary’s bylaw services, says that Calgary’s city council is currently revisiting a backyard livestock ban. “There’s been a real swing in what the public wants. There’s a whole movement towards [sustainability], and backyard hens are a part of [that].”

Although consumers may be more focused on sustainability, urban hens aren’t always viable. The City of Vancouver addressed potential concerns when reviewing its ban on backyard chickens in March 2009. A draft bylaw outlines—among other specifics—that owners must provide basic animal healthcare, and nuisance complaints and humane animal treatment will be regulated by animal control services and the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The new bylaw could be implemented as early as April 2010.

These changes in Calgary and Vancouver are a sign of progress, says Mary, but she is skeptical as to whether urbanizing egg production will make a dent in conventional egg sales.

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