DUNCAN – A Vancouver Island egg producer/grader wants the corporate egg business to give consumers more transparency and choice.
A blog post on the Farmer Ben’s Eggs website in early December questioned the branding of some eggs sold on the island as being island-produced when, in fact, many of the eggs originate off-island and perhaps even out-of-province.
The post also questioned why local grocery stores can’t carry certain eggs thanks to contracts signed at corporate headquarters elsewhere in Canada.
Jennifer Woike wrote the piece after being thwarted in her efforts to gain a foothold in larger grocery stores.
“Unfortunately, to get into any kind of grocery chain it’s near next to impossible. We’ve been in business for 30 years in the Cowichan Valley and we just get turned away time and time again,” Woike says. “Just last week we had a grocery chain contact us and ask us to offer them some pricing … and then we got an e-mail that said unfortunately we’re under contract with the grader, the other provider, and we can’t take your eggs even though we want to.”
Understanding that Vancouver Island egg farmers do not produce enough eggs to satisfy demand, Woike points out that it was local producers who picked up the slack when COVID-19 resulted in empty shelves at grocery stores.
“We never shorted one of our customers, not one time through the pandemic. Actually, we uptook one of the major grocery store chains because they called us in desperation, not having any eggs on their shelves. We had product to them within two hours and we serviced them for three and a half months. Then, once the other grader caught wind that was happening and they started to get their supplies back up, the store was forced to drop us,” she says. “We learned through COVID that [the industry] is definitely not sustainable but we could be more sustainable than we are currently.”
Woike is also concerned that consumers are being led to believe all their eggs come from the island through packaging and marketing practices.
“The branding the other grader is using is misleading and confusing. I think that the majority of the population doesn’t know that their eggs aren’t from the island. Even though that word is in all of their marketing,” says Woike. “I think it’s unfair for us but I think it’s more unfair for the consumer.”
The misleading information regarding egg origins means consumers can’t buy what they want to buy, and restrictive contracts mean they have less choice at the supermarket.
“I really think that’s unfair,” says Woike.
Millions of eggs
Started in 1994, Farmer Ben’s Eggs is the largest producer/grader serving Vancouver Island. The farm sells 1.7 million dozen eggs a year.
According to the BC Egg Marketing Board, Vancouver Island egg farmers produced just under five million dozen eggs last year through November 2020. BC’s 144 registered egg farmers raise over 3.2 million layer hens that produce more than 87 million dozen eggs annually.
According to Egg Farmers of Canada, almost 55.8 million dozen Grade A eggs (in shell) moved inter-provincially and territorially in Canada in 2020. BC purchased almost 9 million dozen eggs from other provinces in 2020 and sold just over 31,000 dozen in total to the Yukon, Alberta and Ontario.
Ontario-based Burnbrae Farms Ltd., which purchased Island Eggs in 2007 and is a major grader on Vancouver Island, would not comment on the percentage of its shelled eggs that originate off-island or the volume of shelled eggs it deals with on Vancouver Island or Canada.
Burnbrae president Margaret Hudson says the company collects eggs from 32 farms on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland for its Island Eggs grading facility.
She says interprovincial movement of eggs is necessary to meet needs across Canada.
“To ensure Canadians have the eggs they need every day, we move eggs from provinces that have an oversupply to those that have unmet demand. British Columbia does not produce enough eggs annually to meet its ever-rising consumer demand, nor does Vancouver Island have sufficient egg production to meet the needs of those living on the island. This was true even before the pandemic. Today, we supply approximately 20% of the BC egg market and we are pleased to say that our fulfillment rate to our grocery store customers on the island is over 98%.”
Hudson would not comment on restrictive contracts and marketing Woike typifies as unfair and misleading.
“We will continue to do everything we can to supply island-raised eggs to those who prefer them,” she says. “For those consumers interested in only buying eggs processed at Island Eggs, there is an easy way to check. Look for the code on the end of the carton and if it begins with BI, you can be assured the eggs are from our facility on the island. We have added language to our website to clarify our sourcing practices.”
Vancouver Island egg farmer Ross Springford sells 65% to 70% of his free-range eggs to Island Eggs. The rest are sold to specific customers and at Springford Farm in Nanoose Bay.
Springford says providing consumers with choice is critical but going up against the big players is not an avenue he would take.
“It’s not a problem for us because we don’t go into the big grocery stores. Our business model works around smaller, niche-type health food stores and a few different smaller markets as well as some restaurants,” he explains. “We went into that kind of model in about 2013. We stay out of the big (stores) because Burnbrae, who are the big guys, work on the grocery stores.”
Springford is dismayed that restrictive contracts could exist.
“I don’t want to really think that happens. It may and it may not. But it’s business and we don’t always know all the ins and outs of all the deals that go on in that sort of thing.”
He does understand the need to move eggs to supply demand.
“This isn’t the cheapest place in the country to produce eggs. With supply management, we don’t want to be oversupplied in an area where it’s really expensive to produce them when, if you need extra eggs, you can get them from other Western provinces,” he notes.
Springford says the egg industry on the island consists of many players producing a variety of egg types, each with its own market.
While he appreciates the Woikes’ frustration in dealing with large corporations, he predicts a hard-fought battle.
“It’s a little David-and-Goliath and sometimes David has to work really hard to get what David can get,” Springford says.