EQA: The mark of confidence
EFC’s new Egg Quality Assurance program aims to build consumer trust.
The standards set out under the EQA program have already been in place for all commercially-produced Canadian eggs for nearly 20 years.
Canadians care that the eggs they choose are humanely raised, top quality, safe and produced in Canada. Very soon, a single Egg Quality Assurance (EQA) symbol on the carton, menu or package will give consumers the information they need to enjoy Canadian eggs with added confidence.
On February 1st, Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) unveiled a comprehensive new national EQA certification program applicable to all types, colours and sizes of Canadian eggs produced on regulated Canadian farms. The program, which certifies that eggs meet EFC’s mandatory Start Clean-Stay Clean on-farm food safety and animal care programs, aims to differentiate Canadian eggs by assuring consumers of those eggs’ quality, safety and humane-certified production practices.
“I see this program as an ‘of course’ and something very obvious,” says Roger Pelissero, a third-generation egg farmer and the current chairman of EFC. “When we started down the road with HAACP (the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, the precursor to on farm food safety standards) way back in the 1980s, I was one of the farmers who said ‘Why wouldn’t we?’ This is the same: we’re walking our talk. It’s easy to prove what we do. Why not have an official program in place that verifies what we do?”
In fact, the standards set out under the EQA program have been in place for all commercially-produced Canadian eggs for nearly 20 years. As such, the EQA program will not add new management, operational or reporting requirements on-farm. Rather, it will combine the existing quality assurance programs under a single, branded, easily recognizable symbol.
“It’s one thing to have standards. That’s important. It’s another thing to promote that you have standards. That’s what this program centres upon,” says Tim Lambert, CEO of EFC.
Based on findings from previous consumer research, Lambert expects the new EQA program to prove popular in restaurants and grocery stores.
“We fully expect that Canadians are going to embrace (the EQA logo). They want transparency. They want to know that farmers adhere to standards, and that those standards are audited by a third party. And other survey work tells us that over 90 per cent of Canadians want to buy Canadian product.
“I’m really excited. I think the program works on so many levels. It fits consumer desires. It gives us an opportunity to tell our story which I think is hugely important.”
The concept of a single, comprehensive quality assurance program is the natural progression of EFC’s commitment to public engagement and social responsibility.
“One of our significant drivers is around the whole notion of building public trust in our food system. We recognized that, more and more, society in general wanted to know the products they are buying are safe and high quality, that if producers are working with animals that they’re working to high standards, that it’s all monitored by a third party,” Lambert says.
“We’ve long thought it would be of value to take our on-farm food safety and our on-farm animal care programs and put them together in a program that Canadian consumers could see. This is about putting a face or a logo to standards that have happened for many years,” he continues.
The project is a collaboration of all parts of the egg industry and will include participation from farmers right through to retailers and food service providers. Lambert reports that there is already a lot of enthusiasm within the industry for building the EQA brand.
In anticipation of the roll-out, every Canadian egg farmer recently went through EQA audit and certification process to ensure 100 per cent compliance across the entire industry.
While all farms must comply with the on-farm standards that form the basis of the EQA program, use of the logo is voluntary. Lambert expects a gradual uptick in symbol usage as processors work through existing, unbranded carton inventory and as word is spread to restaurants and food service companies.
Production realities, consumer priorities and scientific understanding all change over time. While Pelissero says doesn’t expect additional standards to be added to the EQA program anytime soon, its structure will easily accommodate changes as necessary.
Over the past couple of years, EFC took part in a comprehensive process to update the Code of Practice for the care and handling of layers under the guidance of the National Farm Animal Care Council. They intend to complete a similar update every five to seven years.
“The EQA isn’t for one kind of production. The symbol represents all of our standards, right across the country, for all of our eggs. If we decide to add anything, it will still fall under that guideline,” Pelissero says. “As technology changes, we’ll take a look at it. We’ll sit down with different veterinarians and industry partners to ensure there’s nothing hiding in the closet.”
Industry and government are applauding EFC’s commitment to proactive transparency.
“We get nothing but good remarks when we meet with MPs in Ottawa. They say, ‘Man: you guys are out in front. You’re not looking backwards, you’re tackling the big issues – sustainability, housing, food safety, animal care – with very forward thinking,’” Pelissero says. “And why shouldn’t we? Canadian egg farmers are doing a great job. We want to showcase that to maintain trust and credibility.”
The new EQA program’s roll-out coincides with increasing trade uncertainty, both a move towards more aggressive, protectionist negotiations by some of our trading partners and, more recently, uncertainty regarding whether Canada’s biggest trade deal will move forward as negotiated.
Some experts argue that the further we get towards summer, the less likely the Democrats are to give Trump a win on the still-unratified Canada U.S. Mexico Trade Agreement. With an election coming up here at home, Canada’s signature on the agreement is also not entirely certain.
Whether or not the agreement is confirmed in the near term, there’s no way to predict whether Canada may have to give up more market share to U.S. eggs over the longer term.
While Lambert says differentiating Canadian from imported eggs is certainly a priority, the EQA program was not rushed to completion as a response to concerns about trade.
“Under different trade agreements we’ve always had some eggs we had to import. There’s no question that, with Canada reaching different trade deals, we’ve had a lot of people say, ‘How do I know I’m buying Canadian eggs?’ This (program) is an extension of our desire to answer that question, but it’s not timed around that.”
Currently, approximately 94 per cent of eggs sold in Canada are produced within our borders. The rest come almost exclusively from the U.S. The Canadian Government has committed that the majority of eggs imported from the US under the Canada U.S. Mexico Agreement will be directed to processed applications.
Now, the EFC is seeking further interpretation on how exactly ‘the majority’ is defined: while anything from 51per cent and 99 per cent could be defined as such, EFC will continue to lobby for as few fresh American eggs as possible in Canadian grocery store coolers.
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