Backyard flocks are always a hot topic, especially in urban environments. There’s a romantic aspect to waking up and collecting fresh eggs from your small flock of hens. It feels good. In your opinion, the eggs taste better, and having control over your hens’ lives, you remain confident that your food was sourced from happy and healthy hens. I can respect that, even though I am vocally opposed to the idea of having city dwellers raise their own hens.
My biggest concern isn’t avian influenza or the impact on the province’s table egg industry – it’s Salmonella. More specifically, it’s Salmonella enteriditis.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, Salmonella is the second leading cause of food-borne illness in Canada, second only to Campylobacter. There are 5,000 to 6,000 cases reported each year. While the overall infection rate has remained stable, there has been an increase in the number of Canadians presenting with Salmonella enteriditis, and poultry products are labeled as the biggest culprit. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, emphasizes that anyone can contract Salmonella, but children, the elderly, and persons with compromised immune systems can become severely ill. Symptoms include a fever, chills, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and other unpleasant ailments.
Why am I writing about food-borne illness? Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed an outbreak of Salmonella enteriditis across Western Canada, and the bacteria was linked to live chicks from a hatchery in Alberta. Thus far, 34 people have fallen ill – 17 in Alberta, 13 in British Columbia, and 4 in Saskatchewan. Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development are investigating the cause and source of the bacteria and are working with industry stakeholders to curb the spread of this outbreak.
According to Dr. Gerald Hauer, the chief provincial veterinarian in Alberta, Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of birds, and it can be passed through the feces, into eggs. While most people understand the importance of cooking chicken to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, many like consuming eggs with runny yolks. I know I do! While the risk is low, this practice can increase our chances of contracting a stomach bug.
With respect to the recent outbreak, the risk is extremely low, because affected flocks weren’t in production. They were young, and they tested positive for Salmonella enteriditis before any contaminated eggs could hit your grocer’s shelves. Registered laying flocks are tested three times throughout their lifespan – once as pullets (birds younger than 19 weeks of age) and twice as mature hens. This monitoring program is a collaboration between my employer, the Egg Farmers of Alberta, and the provincial government.. This program is part of a national food safety strategy called Start Clean-Stay Clean, which is facilitated in conjunction with the Egg Farmers of Canada. In addition to regular testing for Salmonella enteriditis, all registered producers must pass an annual food safety audit to maintain their production license. This program ensures farmers measure critical control points, implement industry-wide best practices, and maintain extensive production records. Last year, the average audit score, in Alberta, was 99.4%, and 117 producers scored 100%. There’s no denying that Alberta’s egg producers take food safety very seriously.
These programs are not mandatory for unregistered producers, but any sale of unregistered or ungraded eggs must adhere to strict provincial guidelines.
I have the utmost confidence in Alberta’s egg farming families. Omelette you know that commercial egg producers have your family’s best interests at heart.
- Public Health Agency of Canada – Overview of Salmonella enteriditis in Canada
- Centre of Disease Control and Prevention – Salmonella serotype Enteriditis
- CBC – Salmonella outbreak linked to live chicks at Alberta hatchery
- The Edmonton Journal – Salmonella outbreak investigated in northern Alberta farms
- Egg Farmers of Alberta – 2014 Sustainability Report