As backyard chicken keepers, we normally don’t have to worry about buying a carton of eggs from the store. We have the luxury of walking out to the coop and grabbing fresh eggs to use in our kitchen.
But when seasons change, molting happens or any other multitude of issues leaves you eggless, you may find yourself in foreign territory — the egg case at the grocery store. Here you’ll see a variety of labels and a variety of prices that can give you a headache just trying to buy a carton of eggs. Do you go with the 99 cent special? Are those organic eggs worth the price? Is free-range really free range? Ugh! Stop the madness!
The first thing to realize is that store-bought eggs are never going to taste like your fresh-out-of-the-coop eggs. They’re older. They’ve been washed, packaged, and set on a shelf. There’s no way to change those facts. The key to buying a carton of eggs and peace of mind is knowing how mass produced eggs are handled and labeled and exactly what those egg carton codes mean.
How Eggs are Processed for Purchase
You would think knowing how eggs are processed for purchase is simple, but it’s not. There are federal and individual state guidelines for egg producers to follow. It can be daunting. So, the National Egg Regulatory Officials organization’s mission is to help egg producers through all the guidelines.
In general, eggs are visually inspected and washed in a processing room. Jets of water at 110 to 115°F along with brushes and mild detergent clean the eggs. This is done with machines and not human hands to further reduce contamination. After cleaning, they are candled, sized, and packaged. The eggs are refrigerated no more than 36 hours after being laid. Eggs are usually transported to the stores within a week after being laid.
What is candling? Most backyard chicken keepers associate candling — holding an egg over a light source — with checking the condition of incubating eggs. In this case, candling is used to detect shell cracks and interior defects for grading.
Egg Grading and Sizing
Egg grading basically tells us about the quality of the interior and exterior of an egg. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has three egg grades. Note: Some producers choose to use the voluntary USDA grading service. Others choose to use their state agencies. Those cartons of eggs will be marked with a grade, but not the USDA seal.
AA – Whites are thick and firm, yolks are high, round, and practically free from defects with clean unbroken shells.
A – Same as AA, except the whites are “reasonably” firm. This is the quality most often sold in stores.
B – Whites are thinner; yolks are wider and flatter. Shells unbroken, but can have slight stains. These can be purchased in the store. Many are also made into liquid, frozen, and dried egg products.
Egg sizing is something that most people assume tells you the size of each individual egg in a carton of eggs. This is not true. Look closely inside your carton. You’ll see different sizes inside. According to the USDA, egg size is really about weight. It tells you the minimum required net weight per dozen eggs.
USDA Size Chart
|Size or Weight Class||Minimum Net Weight Per Dozen|
|Extra Large||27 Ounces|
USDA-graded eggs show the date of packaging, a processing plant number and usually an expiration or best by date.
The processing plant code starts with a “P” and is followed by four numbers. If you’re curious about where the plant listed on your carton is located, there is a plant finder for eggs with USDA grading. You just enter the four-digit code, hit the search button and you’ll have the information you need.
A Julian date represents the dates of the year and tells you when the eggs in that carton were packaged. Find the three-digit code on your egg carton. It numerically and consecutively tells you what day of the year the eggs in that carton were packed. So January 1 is 001 and December 31 is 365.
According to the USDA, you can safely store eggs four to five weeks beyond that date.
These labels are what can cause confusion and controversy when buying a carton of eggs. Some can be researched and proven. For companies with proper certifications, their wording may be highlighting attributes that are found in their certification itself. Others have no real meaning and are marketing buzzwords. This is a list of typically used labels, but it is by no means exhaustive. If you find something that you are not familiar with, it’s always best to look it up.
All Natural — No legal definition.
Farm Fresh — No legal definition.
Hormone-Free — It’s currently illegal in the United States to give hormones to poultry.
Antibiotic-Free — Meat chickens can be given antibiotics if necessary. Laying hens traditionally aren’t given antibiotics.
USDA Certified Organic — Farms apply for this designation and undergo inspections to ensure standards are being met. Chickens are given organic feed from the second day of life. They have access to outdoors with space for exercise and direct sunlight.
Free-Range — Chickens don’t live in cages. They have some access to the outdoors. Be careful with this designation. Access to the outdoors doesn’t mean they can go outdoors. Sometimes this is just a small door in a huge barn. There is no official certification for this designation unless another designation like USDA Organic or Humane Certified is listed. In that case, the company is marketing the attributes of its certification.
Cage-Free — Hens don’t live in cages. They can roam around a large barn area.
Humane Farm Animal Care (Certified Humane Raised and Handled) — This is a certification program that farms must apply for and continue to meet the designated standards. Chickens are given a nutritious diet, no hormones or antibiotics, have room to roam and behave naturally such as flapping their wings and rooting.
American Humane Certified — Third-party farm animal welfare certification. Eggs are produced on farms that follow science-based animal well-being standards for cage-free, enriched colony and free-range/pasture environments.
Pasture-Raised — Chickens roam on pasture and eat bugs and grass. There is no certification for this specific designation unless another designation like USDA Organic or Humane Certified is listed. In that case, the company is marketing the attributes of its certification.
Pasteurized — Eggs are heated to destroy any pathogens. These eggs are commonly used for people with compromised immune systems.
Fertilized — Hens have been raised with a rooster in the flock. These eggs are traditionally sold at specialty food stores.
Omega-3 — Chickens are fed a dietary supplement to increase the Omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs.
When you buy a carton of eggs from the grocery store, what’s the most important labeling fact to you? Let us know in the comments below.