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Break an egg

Alberta’s new EPIC plant finds extraordinary value in what used to be a very ordinary farm commodity

broken chicken egg

If you’re looking to break some eggs, set your GPS to the city of Lethbridge. Egg breaking is becoming southwest Alberta’s newest way to make money.

There, in a refurbished dairy plant, you will find a new business called EPIC, which stands for Egg Processing Innovations Cooperative. 

It’s owned by the United Egg Farmers of Alberta, and got a big send-off into the business world last June with the help of grants and support from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA).

Inside Alberta, ALMA needs little introduction. For readers outside the province, it’s good to know that ALMA’s mandate is to encourage new farm initiatives with grants, information and investment “to help Alberta’s livestock and meat industry become more profitable, sustainable and internationally respected.”

In Lethbridge, the goal for the new EPIC plant has been differentiated from the outset for the province’s former but more modest egg-breaking endeavour at Airdrie, just north of Calgary. It’s also differentiated from the huge egg-breaking plants in the U.S. that cast a shadow over North America’s egg markets.

Between the two extremes, EPIC believes it has found a value niche.

The project in Airdrie was a 50/50 ownership between the egg farmers’ co-operative and Vanderpol’s Eggs. (The Vanderpol’s main branch is in Abbotsford, B.C.)

During its evolution, Vanderpol’s Eggs at Airdrie struck an agreement with biotech company IRI Separation Technologies. IRI’s goal was to focus on the extraction of antibodies from eggs for use in things such as natural food products and pharmaceuticals, since the antibodies that can be extracted from eggs are similar to the beneficial human kind.

At Airdrie, then, Vanderpol’s would handle the sale and distribution of liquid egg products, leaving IRI to focus on the separation technologies.

IRI struggled, however. By 2009 it was looking to restructure and merge with other companies, but its last public mention was in 2011, about the same time the Airdrie plant ceased operations.

In Lethbridge, meanwhile, Bruce Forbes was given the CEO’s job to get the EPIC plant off the ground. “I was hired to write the business plan and oversee things,” says Forbes, “We are very happy with how smoothly we were able to get things into place.”

With equipment from the former egg-breaking plant in Airdrie, it took about a year to finalize the deal and begin operations.

Raw, shelled eggs are used for many different products. To put it simply, the egg shell is used for calcium, while what’s inside the egg is used for convenience products such as liquid eggs, as well as a pet food additive for Champion Pets. However, the full lineup of end uses via EPIC’s processing methods is far longer.

Making eggs

At the Lethbridge plant, a machine breaks some 18,750 dozen eggs a day and then separates yolks from whites, eggs from shells, and shells from membranes. Liquid egg is pasteurized and can be used in food products such as ice cream, mayonnaise and noodles, as well as in healthier “egg white only” liquid egg products. There are myriad other food markets as well, including markets for pasteurized liquid whole egg, pasteurized albumin (including pharmacology use among others), and pasteurized yolks.

A range of cooking and related products are blended for food-service companies as well, and users of egg shell membranes and egg shell calcium are other possible markets. 

On the non-food side, nutraceutical companies, researchers and other clientele are increasingly looking at new uses for the egg byproducts, yolks and whites. Egg membrane is important, as is the calcium inside the shell. Some future product partners could be companies making cinder-blocks, nutraceuticals (calcium based and joint health supplements) and more. 

At peak capacity, EPIC can process 2.1 million eggs per week, producing 90 tonnes of liquid egg products. Egg supply, however, is lagging behind the plant’s needs.

This slowed down the first half year of operations more than EPIC would like. “Things are starting to pick up now, but there is an overall egg shortage in the province so we are actively looking for bigger operations to get more eggs,” says Forbes.

The reason for needing larger-producing farms is that eggs must be from cage-free chickens, and it isn’t always the most fuel- or product-efficient to be sourcing from numerous smaller farms. Eggs must also be graded before delivery to EPIC. 

“Our facilities are great. Demand for our products currently exceeds supplies, however,” Forbes says. “We are taking all the eggs we can get our hands on. Going farm to farm, we are talking to farmers about switching to cage-free poultry farming and building our supply chain.”

Previously, non-table egg breaking and processing was shipped out to British Columbia and Saskatchewan plants. Starting in 2008, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario launched cage-free poultry campaigns. A 2012 ban in the EU of caged birds has motivated many producers to make the switch. EU poultry may reside only in enriched cages with perches, nest boxes and free-range setups.

According to an Egg Farmers of Alberta’s press release, 85 per cent of Alberta eggs came from hens in conventional cages in 2012. This number was down from 98 per cent in 2006.

Gordon Cove, CEO at ALMA, predicts expanding value for the egg sector. He calls egg breaking “a whole new area” and in media reports has said the Lethbridge plant “has the potential to be a catalyst for the entire egg industry.”

Currently at 14 employees, EPIC originally forecast revenues of  $2.5 million in the first year. Whether that will be met in the second half remains to be seen. However, the plant has room for future expansion and, at an originally predicted 22-employee capacity, might inject a total gross annual output of $5 million to the Alberta economy. The Lethbridge location also boasts the advantage of being near to many food-product companies and processors.

EPIC offers an “engineered” egg solution according to customer specifications. Enriched feed eggs, fertilized eggs and a range of unique traits can be important to nutraceutical manufacturers. In some product and research categories, customers may also be seeking such things as inseminated and incubated eggs. 

“Because we are producer-owned and we do work closely with our suppliers, we can ensure that our end-customer gets the exact product they are looking for,” says Forbes.

Currently, Alberta is the largest net importer of interprovincial egg products in Canada. Through the EPIC plant, Alberta’s egg industry hopes to boost its value-added capacity in egg processing.

At the grand opening, Verlyn Olson, Alberta agriculture minister, said, “We’re very proud to have the EPIC plant in Alberta. The work done here benefits our egg producers and the local economy by creating jobs and a steady source of demand for eggs. More importantly, it benefits all Albertans by giving consumers additional value-added options for egg products.”

In practical terms at EPIC, things will be running closer to original plans when egg supply meets demand.

EPIC wants egg producers with strong yields to take note, saying this is a chance to really get their sales figures cracking.

It’s also a chance to crack open new markets, Forbes says. “Nothing of the egg will be unused. We will be processing the entire product.”

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