Smaller egg farmers find themselves in a David and Goliath situation when it comes to major producers and chain-grocery store shelf space. (Citizen file)

Name on the egg carton not what it seems, cautions Cowichan producer

"Island" eggs may come from Manitoba, Woike says

Do you know where your “Island” eggs come from? For many, it’s a grocery store on the Island. They were likely even graded and packaged on Vancouver Island. But do you know where they were actually laid?

“The eggs that you’re receiving here on the Island under that label could be from as far away as Manitoba,” said Jennifer Woike, co-owner of the Cowichan Valley’s own Farmer Ben’s Eggs.

Woike is frustrated with her company’s inability to get their locally laid eggs on the shelves of mega-chain grocery stores on the Island, despite some of those stores wishing they could carry them.

“Did you know that Vancouver Island cannot currently support its egg needs? Meaning we don’t produce enough eggs currently to sustain the consumer’s needs. Did you know how many eggs are shipped to Vancouver Island from the Fraser Valley, Alberta and possibly as far away as Manitoba? Those eggs are on your grocery store shelves,” Woike said. “Some of them have branding leading you to believe that they are in fact local or Island-produced.”

They’re not.

While consumers are much more aware of where their food comes from these days, there are still some confusing marketing areas that make it tricky for customers to truly know.

For example, Woike couldn’t use the word “organic” because she’s not certified organic, despite her company doing everything organically.

Just the same, somebody could use the word “Island” in their marketing, even when the eggs aren’t from the Island.

An egg company Farmer Ben’s competes with uses the word “Island” in their marketing. The company has a grading station on Vancouver Island but it grades eggs from all over Western Canada, Woike explained. “All of the eggs come over here, and are graded on the Island, and then shipped out back to all the stores.”

What’s more, the contracts to supply those eggs are pushing the truly local merchants out of the mix.

“We have grocery stores wanting to carry locally produced eggs, but they can’t,” Woike explained. “They can’t because they are locked into contracts in which the wording states that no other eggs are allowed to be sold other than the major…multi-million-dollar corporation that holds that contract. Even if the consumer is asking, even if the grocery store manager locally wants to carry the local eggs — the answer is no.”

Woike said they’ve even gone so far as to offer to purchase their own egg coolers at their own cost just to get their eggs into the stores but not on the same shelves as the other eggs, but that didn’t fly either. They can’t even be in the store.

“These contracts are taking away the consumer and the retailer’s right to purchase the eggs that they are wanting, the eggs that their customers are requesting and, in some cases, demanding,” Woike said.

Woike said the straw that broke the camel’s back was that during the pandemic, Farmer Ben’s was called by a major grocer because they couldn’t keep eggs on the shelves.

“About April, when we started to see the empty store shelves, Thrifty Foods called us up and said ‘we can’t get any eggs can you guys help us’ and we were like ‘sure we can help you, what do you need?'” she explained. “We were supplying eggs to them for about 16 weeks before the big company under contract caught onto it and they said ‘oh no, you can’t do that’ even though they couldn’t themselves supply them.”

The calls started coming in.

“We had people phoning us saying they’d been buying Farmer Ben’s eggs at Thrifty Food for months and now they aren’t able to, and why aren’t they?” she explained. “It’s just a very frustrating conversation to be having, so finally I decided I’ve got to get this out there. People need to understand what it is they’re purchasing.”

What’s the solution?

“The solution is, I think, that the consumer has to push back,” Woike said. “That’s the only way I can see this being driven. The consumer needs to, if the consumer wants to support local then they need to truly understand what that is in the grocery store.”

She suggests looking for brands that carry the BUY BC logo or the ISLAND GOOD logo to know that your eggs are local.

If you want to ensure you are getting local eggs, buying the ones that say “Island” on it is no longer good enough.

Cowichan Valley Citizen

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