The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling! Or, is it?

Investigating the real story behind Charlottetown food bank’s rejection of Barnyard Organics’ donated eggs

When Mark Bernard of Barnyard Organics in Freetown packed up his truck in early May with 40 dozen organic eggs to deliver to the Upper Room Food Bank in Charlottetown, he was expecting to return home with an empty truck, but that didn’t happen. The food bank rejected the organic eggs, citing food safety regulations as the barrier to receiving the donation. A year prior, the same food bank had accepted Barnyard’s donation of surplus eggs; this year they declined the donation because the eggs had not been graded.

Barnyard Organics has a surplus of a couple hundred dozen eggs each spring according to Sally Bernard, who runs the farm with her husband. Each year, between March and May, a new crop of 6-month-old hens begins laying eggs. This year, the farm has 165 hens, producing six eggs a week at their prime, or 990 eggs (82 dozen eggs) on average each week. Last year’s hens, now 18 months old, also remain on the farm while they await assignment to a new, temporary home as part of Barnyard’s unique hen rental program.

Sally Bernard of Barnyard Organics. //Photo Credit: Katherine Bell

Eggs from Barnyard Organics are sold directly to customers through local retail shops, farmers’ markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs offered by Barnyard Organics and farming partners. In order to be sold directly to consumers, eggs must comply with federal regulations. They must be clean (not necessarily washed), inspected for cracks or defects, and sold in clean packages labeled with the farm’s identifying information, according to Bernard. There is no requirement that eggs be graded.

“[Grading] is the weighing and sizing. So that when you buy a large carton of eggs, you can be sure they are all large eggs. That is the number one reason they are graded. And the second [process] is the candling or making sure there are no cracks,” said Bernard, who also holds the volunteer position of Critic for Agriculture and Fisheries in the shadow cabinet of the PEI Green Party.

The term ‘grading’ is often used as a proxy for both processes—the weighing and judging of size for economic reasons, and the quality inspection process that ensures the safety of the eggs. Organic egg producers, including those selling directly to customers, like Barnyard Organics, are required to follow federal regulations regarding egg cleaning and inspection, but weighing and categorizing by size, or grading, is not required.

“It’s the safety thing that keeps coming up as the reason [for rejection]. But grading has very little to do with safety, as far as I’m concerned,” said Bernard. “We handle each egg individually so we see if there is a crack.”

The Egg Farmers of PEI, however, see grading as integral to ensuring the safety of the eggs reaching consumers. Eggs graded at a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) grading site must come from registered farms, which are inspected to ensure they follow national guidelines regarding cleanliness and animal handling.

“It’s about knowing where the eggs actually come from,” said Michael Cummiskey, general manager of Egg Farmers of PEI. When asked if it was possible for an organic farm to follow these guidelines and not use antibiotics or chemicals that would contradict their organic status, Cummiskey was unsure. “Possibly, depending on what specifically they are not wanting to use[…]One of the conditions is that farms are tested for salmonellae enteritis. I doubt any of those farms test for this.” Currently there are no CFIA-graded organic eggs from PEI available for sale on the Island, though organic eggs are brought in from out-of-province for sale in grocery stores and to restaurants.

Photo Credit: Katherine Bell

It is not a legal requirement that eggs distributed by food banks be graded. The Government of PEI does not, in fact, regulate food banks. Food banks are exempt under the Food Premises Regulations, a subsection of the Public Health Act. When contacted, the Department of Environmental Health referred directly to the Upper Room Food Bank who “sets their own regulations about what types of food are acceptable for donation,” according to a staff member in the department.

“I think we have misinterpreted the [provincial] guidelines,” Mike MacDonald, manager at the Upper Room, said, referring to the declined egg donation. “At our soup kitchen we aren’t able to use [ungraded eggs]. We took that as them not being able to be used at the food bank either.” Soup kitchens, unlike food banks, do fall under the Food Premises Regulations. The Upper Room Board of Directors is looking into ungraded eggs, but at the present time they are continuing their policy of only accepting graded eggs for donation.

“There are no real regulations, no laws indicating what food banks can and cannot accept,” said Marzena Gersho, spokesperson for Food Banks Canada, the national charitable organization representing and supporting 550 food banks across Canada. “It all comes down to food safety.”

Food Banks Canada does suggest guidelines to local food banks, including that all eggs be graded at a CFIA grading station. “Individuals that purchase eggs for their personal consumption[…]are essentially making a choice about the risk they are willing to take for themselves and their families from uninspected/ungraded products. People receiving food from local food banks do not have that choice. So food banks have a responsibility to ensure food safety standards are met in order to reduce risk to clients,” said Gersho. Food Banks Canada also sees grading—a weighing and measuring process—as equating to safe food handling, because of the other inspection processes that accompany grading at CFIA sites.

“It’s a little bit of discrimination against my good girls,” said Bernard, adding that the the farm provides clean, hand-inspected, high-quality, but ungraded organic eggs. “It is frustrating, [but] that’s their decision and I respect that.”

“We’ve looked into putting in a grading facility. But at this point for us, it’s just adding extra cost to eggs that are already at a premium and our markets aren’t really demanding it. We’re basically doing what would be required of us, just because that’s what we are doing,” Bernard said. “Thankfully we have a ton of other avenues to donate our eggs.”


Eggs in the Spotlight

This is not the first time egg regulations have caused a stir in Island communities. In 2011, Paul Offer of The Doctor’s Inn in Tyne Valley was told that by the provincial Department of Health he had to stop serving his own organically-grown eggs to his guests because they had not been federally inspected. In 2015, local Montague retailer, The Turning Point, was instructed to stop selling eggs from a local farmer that weren’t federally inspected or face fines.