In this chicken-and-egg situation, it’s clear which comes first, but those who produce the first step in the broiler industry don’t get that much attention.
“We don’t direct market to a consumer, so I think that’s why people don’t really think of us,” says Nancy Robinson, assistant manager of the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers (AHEP), a little known, but vital segment of the provincial chicken chain.
The chicken supply chain has three major steps, and the hatching egg producers are the first. “It’s the cow-calf operation of the chicken industry. The producers we represent are the Alberta hatching egg producers, and they produce the fertilized eggs for the hatchery industry, which then hatches them into broiler chicks which go into the chicken industry,” said Robinson.
Established in 1982, AHEP functions as a marketing board within a supply management system established in 1986 for the national broiler hatching egg industry. AHEP is run by a five-member board consisting of producers elected by fellow producers.
The board helps producers with the quota system, which is somewhat complicated because they’re based on a 52-week cycle, but the hatching egg cycle is 66 weeks.
“We have 582,686 quota units available in the province. In our province, one quota unit is equal to one hen placed every 52 weeks when allocation is at 100 per cent,” said Robinson, adding that quota units vary between provinces.
Once a hatching egg breeder chicken has finished her useful lifespan, she can still be utilized for meat and goes to market as fowl, which is not very tender and is often used in processed products, and as filler in deli meats. Robinson compares it to using older cull cows for hamburger.
“You can imagine on a large scale, fowl meat is very, very cheap, so if you can dilute your product, you’re making that product a lot less expensive. In the big picture, it’s a huge saving for the processor,” Robinson said.
Supply management has recently been in the sights of columnists in the national press, but Robinson ensures local supply and avoids industry domination such as by the mega-barns in the U.S.
“What happens if something goes wrong with one of them? Why do we want to take that risk as a country? Why do we want to rely on another country to supply our food and hope that if there’s a crisis out there, that they’ll still supply us?”
Robinson warns that should supply management be dismantled, the chicken industry could go the way of others. “Look at what happened to the pork industry — there’s a free market that has completely crumbled. How many people have gone out of business? How many farms have closed?”