Egg Carton Labeling: Cracking the Code

Have you noticed how complicated buying eggs has become?

Long gone are the simple options of “white” or “brown.” These days, cartons can be labelled with a myriad of information, the meaning of which can be a bit confusing.

Egg Carton Labeling: Cracking the Code | Foodal.com

And as it turns out, with very little regulation to ensure accuracy.

To clarify, here’s a breakdown of some of the more common information found on today’s egg cartons.

1. End Codes

According to Craig A. Morris, Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, the numbers found on the end of a carton contain a few bits of information.

USDA's "Get the Scoop on Eggs" | Foodal.com
Source: USDA

One row will contain the plant number where they were packaged, e.g. E444, and the Julian date. This is the day that they were washed, graded and packaged.

The Julian date is a three-digit code based on consecutive days of the year. It starts on January 1 and ends on December 31, so each calendar day has a number between 001-365.

If the eggs were packaged on August 10, for example, the Julian date for 2016 would be 223, as it’s a leap year.

Egg Stamp Pocket Guide | Foodal.com
Source: USDA

So, our example of E444233 indicates where and when packaging occurred.

2. Date Code

Dating is not required by federal law in the US, but may be required by state law. The date stamped on the carton indicates when they should be sold by for best quality – but it’s not an expiration date.

Eggs in the shell are edible for 4-5 weeks, provided they’re refrigerated.

The terms “sell by,” “best by,” or “best before” simply mean this is when they need to be sold by – they’ll still be usable at home for another 2-3 weeks.

3. Grading

Eggs sold to consumers in the US must indicate which grade they are, although certification to USDA standards is not required.

AA refers to the freshest and highest quality, A is very good quality, and B is used to indicate quality sufficient for baking, or liquid eggs.

You’ll want to cook with AAs whenever possible (or better yet, true farm-raised eggs for a beta-carotene boost as seen in the very bright yellow yolks, better firmness, and taste that will blow your mind).

4. Cage Free

By far, the majority of laying hens in North America are tightly confined in battery cages, with very little freedom to move or forage.

Although specific definitions vary, cage free generally means the hens can move around in open area barns, but are most often kept indoors with no outside access. They have unrestricted access to food and water, as well as nests and perches.

6. Free Range

Free range means the hens can actually breathe fresh air in the great outdoors – weather permitting. However, it doesn’t mean the pasture area is suitable to sustain a healthy diet.

They’ll have access to open areas for foraging, unlimited food, and water, as well as perches and nests.

7. Omega-3

This label indicates the hens have been fed a special diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, usually from flax, in order to modify the fat content in the yolks. They contain more omega-3s and less omega-6s than conventional eggs.

8. Vegetarian Fed or Grain Fed

These designations refer to the diet the hens are fed.

Chickens of course are not vegetarians, nor will they thrive on grain alone. To ensure nutritious eggs with strong shells, they need a well-balanced and complete diet.

Only organic eggs have regulations regarding feed, and designations such as vegetarian fed are designed to appeal to the consumer – not the hens’ natural eating habits.

9. Organic

Organic means the hens are fed an organic diet free of animal by-products, pesticides, and antibiotics, and that they’re raised in a humane environment with nesting boxes and outdoor access.

In both the US and Canada, the organic designation is the only classification that’s regulated, and in the it US is governed by state jurisdiction.

Summary

It’s surprising how little of the information found on egg cartons is actually regulated at all.

Producers can make pretty much any labeling claims they like, regardless of their accuracy. And consumers just have to figure it out the best they can.

So, now that you know what some of the terms mean, will this alter your buying habits? Do you care about the lack of regulations on labeling? Or are you happy with the status quo?

Tell us your opinions, and let your voice be heard on this hot topic!

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About Lorna Kring

Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.

48 thoughts on “Egg Carton Labeling: Cracking the Code

  1. This article is shocking and eye-opening! I never thought about what does the labeling on the eggs that I’m buying mean. I just bought the first carton that I came upon. Now I’ll try to make more conscious decisions.
    I want to only buy organic animal products, because I care about animals. I hate that people have the audacity to make them suffer to have bigger profit. Disgusting.

    • Well, at least we’re making some progress on how animals are treated. Now that activists have been bringing some attention to the atrocious living conditions that their animals are living in, companies are forcing their supplies to change their ways. Even if it isn’t really because they care for the animals, it’s a step forward.

      My main concern with organic eggs is that hens with more space to roam will still be vulnerable to diseases, especially since they’re coming in contact with a bunch of different possible vectors, like raccoons, insects, or other birds.

    • I don’t think my buying habits will change. The cost of organic or free-range eggs is rising too much in my area. Demand has gone up, but production has gone down. These hens have to be fed with organic food, but the US isn’t producing enough organic soybeans and corn – we have to import them from other countries. Farmers aren’t making enough from their efforts, so that’s worrisome. The profit margin for traditional eggs is way higher, so it isn’t surprising if many farmers just quit producing the organic version.

    • It is pretty sad to see the way some animals are treated to satisfy our appetites. And as bergamots points out, farmers have to be very dedicated to engage in practices that mean lower profits… a tough situation to be sure.

  2. My buying habits won’t change because I buy my eggs from certain places and people now. Before my dad moved back to North Carolina, he lived in an area that allowed residents to have backyard chickens, and every other month he would bring cartons to me and my sister.

    All in all great article, this is wonderful information I’ll be sharing with others.

  3. This article was very informative! I actually didn’t realize that there was a difference between “cage free” and “free range” – a very big difference! I will be careful to read the labels more closely, and to purchase free range from now on.

  4. I never realized that they actually print so much information on the cartons. I guess I just never knew what to look for 🙂 I’m going to keep a couple cheat sheets on my phone now for sure. Back home our house backed onto a little farm and we’d get fresh eggs, so I’m still getting used to picking them out at the store, and they make the information really hard to figure out if you don’t already know what everything means!

  5. I just recently (less than a week ago!) saw an article about this and was so surprised at some of the facts! I hadn’t known a lot of it and it was shocking to say the least.

    Well, my husband wanted to check it out in the local supermarket and couldn’t believe what he found, and how long those eggs had actually been sitting on the shelf! (Or at least since they were packaged.) I had no idea! One of the cartons was 44 days!

    We decided to start getting ours at the local Farmer’s Market where there are all kinds of merchants including local Amish. He went there on Friday and asked an Amish lady about the eggs. Her answer was “Oh, very fresh, they just came out of the chicken three days ago!” Now *that* is the kind I want and will most certainly be buying them that way in the future. 😀

  6. This indeed a lot of information. Where I’m from eggs are just eggs. They don’t have all these labeling to confuse the customers.

    • Zhen25, do you mean that you have no data on the container that would indicate to consumers how old the eggs actually are or when they may be too old to eat?

      If that’s the case, it sounds very scary to me! Are there a large number of food-borne illness cases there? Salmonella isn’t a concern? Or other bacterium? How would you tell when eggs are dangerous to eat?

    • Simplicity certainly has its place. From what I read in researching this piece, your nose is the best indicator of when eggs have gone bad – they’ll emit a strong sulfurous smell. The proverbial “rotten eggs” aroma…

  7. It is really absurd how such an easy purchase has become so confusing. I usually buy the regular white eggs and on rare occasion purchase the Omega ones. I don’t think I will change my buying habits but will definitely be reading the labels more.

  8. Wow, this article is eggcellent. Hehe 😉 I actually didn’t realize there was so much that went into packaging eggs! I also might get medium sized eggs instead of large, since there really isn’t that much of a different in size, contrary to my former beliefs. I also didn’t know that chickens weren’t vegetarian, though I suppose when they eat bugs and things that would go against that idea, so not sure how I came to believe that at all. All that, and also that I need to stop throwing out unused eggs as soon as the best by date comes around. I have probably wasted hundreds of dollars on eggs I’ve tossed out before they were bad, thinking they were bad.

    • The whole best before/sell before dating is pretty sneaky… and I don’t think you’re alone in tossing out perfectly fine eggs just because it looks as though they’ve expired sterlingjay.

  9. I am really surprised by all of this as I had no idea. I will be honest here, I usually never pay any attention to the diffferent types of eggs there are. I had been told that brown eggs and range free were a good type to buy but i didnt really know about all od the rest of this. This post ia very VERY informative for me and a bit startling at the same time. I will think twice when im standing in the eggs section of the dairy now.

    • It is startling rainhero. It make me quite uncomfortable to realize how manipulative some of the packaging is, and how clueless some of my purchasing habits have become.

  10. Informative article as always, I’d always wondered precisely what those numbers meant. I remember reading somewhere that most “expiration” dates are actually sell-by dates, but no one ever believes me on that for some reason. I’d heard free-range chicken eggs are a lot more expensive, though, so is there any actual benefit to buying free-range eggs vs. cage eggs besides the obvious moral concerns?

    • Free range hens at least have access to a more natural diet and lifestyle. And I can’t help but think that birds that can indulge in instinctive habits like foraging, dust-bathing and perching would be “happier”, and produce better tasting eggs – but that’s just my opinion malavicious.

  11. That was a truly interesting read. Who knew I had so much to learn about this? I’m really happy to see the code deciphered too.

    The brand I buy just switched from the typical expiry date to one of these systems. Like, within a week. I have one pack in my fridge that has a typical label and another one that I bought a week later that is more like the ones described here. I have to admit, I had no idea what that stuff meant, so thanks.

    • I know what you mean Zyni, you just want to buy some fresh, wholesome eggs without having to get your Master’s degree…

  12. I think this information is important especially when it comes to recalls. I remember one time my family bought a block of single slice cheeses and the next thing we knew the brand was having a recall on some of them. It doesn’t make sesne how little I know about certain types of labeling because we work hard for our money. We want to buy the best we can afford and not know how things are regulated and label is a personal problem. Atleast now I know where to get started so thanks for this post.

    • I definitely need to learn more about labeling. When recalls come out, I’m always scrambling to find out if I’ve got something that’s part of the recall. It also surprises me how the different types of labeling don’t have any sort of consistency between food items. The label on a carton of eggs is probably going to be different from that on a gallon of milk. And I have no clue if either one is regulated at all. I don’t think they are. I remember reading somewhere that those “best by” dates are completely arbitrary.

    • If there was some sort of consistency to labeling foods it would be a lot easier for the consumer. But as it stands, one set of rules applies here, another set applies there, and this group doesn’t need any rules… it’s certainly frustrating.

  13. If I recall correctly, there are specific guidelines for how much coop and pasture area each chicken needs to have in order for it to be considered “cage free” or “free range.” For example, each chicken needs to have at least 4 square feet of coop space and 10 square feet of pasture for it to be considered free range.

    It’s also important to note that farmers have up to 30 (or possibly even 40) days from when an egg is laid to package it, so it’s potentially almost a month old by the time it even reaches that packaging date… Which is why I always highly recommend finding small local farms and buying direct, so you know where you’re getting your food from.

    One of the things that this article leaves out is that many of the hens raised in battery cages are also fed antibiotics as part of their diet because respiratory infections are so common in such confined areas.

    • Even those guidelines change from state to state in the US, so again we’re faced with a lack of consistency in regulations.

      And that’s a good point ydolem11, hens housed in battery cages are more susceptible to a greater variety of infections and disease.

  14. This is really helpful! I had always wondered what determined the size of eggs. You go to the store and see Large and Jumbo, and you just go “Geez, what does that even mean?!” Now I know. Thanks for sharing–I think this will make it easier for me to go to the store and pick out eggs now!

  15. Glad to hear that i am not the only one getting confused around the supermarket each time i go to buy eggs. I once paid excess and forgot to pick my change only to reach at home and found a completely different variety from the one i expected. The supermarket also didn’t accept returns leave alone the change issue. I simply had to swallow my loss.

    • Hopefully we’ve cleared up a bit of the confusion Charlie, it is a drag to get home from shopping and find we’ve made a mistake… thanks for your comments.

  16. Well this is new information. I’ve never cared to read about labeling or anything. I just grab the carton, open it up to check if all the eggs are OK and go. Will be looking more into this.

  17. Well, I live in a different country but I think our regulations are similar to US, if not more loose. And yeah, being a “semi-activist” (well, I’m an activist-journalist, but I don’t really take part in rallies and such -I have a weak body, so, yeah…), I condemn any mistreatment to animals (and humans) and I believe that stricter rules and regulations as well as proper implementation of the law would solve the problem. As for some of the issues stated by the comments above (ex. hens that can freely roam around are more vulnerable to diseases), I’m not well-rounded in regards to this, but I think the scientists can think of ways -or simply make sure that the place where hens roam around are safe 🙂

    • It’s always a fine line between meeting consumer demands with mass production practices when it involves animals toradada. But, if some farms can meet demands with humane environments, all should be able to do the same. And adequate regulations, with inspections and penalties for violations, would go a long way to making that a reality… thanks for your thoughts!

  18. This is very interesting information about eggs. I always look at the expiration or best buy date on eggs before placing them in my shopping cart. I’m glad that I found out what all of the other numbers mean on the end of an egg carton. I find the packaging date of special interest and will also look at this number when purchasing eggs. It does surprise me that there isn’t stricter regulations concerning eggs, due to the possibility of salmonella.

  19. I think the washing and grading of eggs has adequate regulations for safety JMax, but what goes on a carton is another story altogether! Glad you found the post of interest.

  20. This is pretty helpful but do you have any tips as to how I can store all this information in my head? I always try to buy the best items in the store and eggs are one of my priorities because I eat them regularly. Thanks for all the valuable tips!

    • Well, head-storage for me consists of a pencil and paper fuzyon… I’m hopeless if its not written down! Glad you enjoyed the post!

  21. Three different friends of mine have actually started raising chickens for eggs and personal use in the past two years. All three of them live in suburban areas and definitely not rural ones. Fortunately, their respective municipalities don’t mind as long as the neighbors don’t. Apparently, bribing your neighbors with a few eggs is usually all it takes for no one to mind. While I haven’t yet reached the point where I’m willing to start raising chickens like I did on the farm when I was small, the information in this article was certainly eye-opening and will be utilized on my next trip to the grocery store!

    • I suspect a few cartons of homegrown gems have greased the palm of many a complaining neighbor Lisa – it’s a pretty decent bribe! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  22. Wow, very informative. Admittedly, I have never looked into all these details before buying eggs. I always just grab the cheapest ones on the shelf, they’re all the same, right? (kidding) Looks like i’ll be taking a closer look next time and buying the freshest ones.

  23. I cannot tell you just how many times I’ve had to throw away eggs just because they went off quicker than expected. I always used to just grab the nearest and cheapest carton. Thanks for helping us learn how to find the freshest ones. This is really going to come in handy next time I go shopping.

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