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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.