British Columbia

New B.C. rules set minimum access to outdoors for free-range hens

The egg industry said it's heard from consumers who wanted some guarantee the eggs they were purchasing really did come from a free-range farm, and it's listening.

As of 2016, there were 32 free-range and 37 organic egg farms operating under B.C. Egg

Free run chickens are raised in open-concept barns with nesting and laying areas, while free-range chickens are also given access to the outdoors. (CBC)

Some say free-range eggs taste better, others buy them to feel good about the quality of life the hens experience — but how can consumers be confident they're getting what they're shelling out for?

B.C. Egg is introducing new rules that will require free-range egg farmers to keep records, provide hens with a minimum level of access to the outdoors and see the industry audited by a third party.

"We're training our producers right now and starting third-party audits in January," said Katie Lowe, executive director of B.C. Egg, the non-profit industry regulator.

'Quality' outdoor space

Free-range eggs come from hens kept in barns with access to the outdoors. Currently there is no system of verifying how often or how long hens are allowed that access.

Consumers pay more for free-range product than conventional eggs because production costs are higher due to the increased labour and space required, according to producers.

The new rules will require farmers to allow hens to go outside for a minimum of six hours each day, 120 days of the year as long as the temperature is between 15 and 30 C.

If access is restricted for any other reason, the producer must provide a recommendation from a veterinarian stating why. One common reason hens may be kept inside to prevent the spread of disease either to or from the flock.

The quality of the outdoor pasture will also be regulated going forward. The outdoor space must have grass, be clear of debris and wildlife attractants such as food.

Lowe said she hopes the changes will help consumers feel confident, but said there's no need for a major crackdown. 

"Our farmers deserve our trust, they're good people," she told Rick Cluff, host of The Early Edition.

First in Canada

Before the changes, Lowe said farms were checked by occasionally grading station staff during weekly egg pick-ups. B.C. Egg would also visit each farm once a year.

Going forward, farmers will be audited annually by a third party, which makes B.C. the first province to see mandatory auditing for all free-range farmers.

In B.C., hens can be raised in conventional, enriched, free-run or free-range environments. Organic eggs come from chickens raised in free-range conditions and given organic feed.

As of 2016, there were 32 free-range and 37 organic egg farms operating under B.C. Egg, accounting for a total of more than 400,000 laying hens.

Still, the majority of eggs produced in the province came from the more than two million hens in conventional cages.

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition