Decoding the Carton: Eggs

September 15, 2010

A hen lays only one egg a day, so imagine all the birds required to produce the 72 billion eggs Americans consume each year. Cluck, cluck!

A hen lays only one egg a day, so imagine all the birds required to produce the 72 billion eggs Americans consume each year. Cluck, cluck!

No wonder eggs are so popular: They pack a powerful nutritional punch. The yolk naturally contains zinc and vitamins D, E and A. The white (called the albumen) is rich in protein, riboflavin, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfur and niacin.  As consumers we need to keep food safety in mind when eating and preparing eggs; if handled and prepared improperly you will not recieve all of the wonderful nutrition that eggs provide.

Some things you need to know to keep your family healhty and safe:
Are they fresh? All USDA inspected eggs require packing dates and plant numbers. But they could be confusing since about 15 states have their own egg safety regulations.

Expiration dates or sell-buy date: these dates extend no longer than 30 days from when the eggs were packed. Typically eggs will stay fresh 10-15 days after this date if properly stored.

Use-by or best before date: these dates are typically 45 days from packing.

Packing date: the day of the year (example: 12/26/10) would show "360") that the eggs were packed in the carton, usually within one week of egg laying.

When cracked, the egg's color is also a good indication of freshness and safety. Clear egg whites are from older, but safe eggs; pinkish egg whites mean the egg is spoiled and a cloudy egg white means it is VERY fresh. Blood spots in egg yolks are safe, but best bet is to remove them before cooking for eye appeal.

One of the best ways to tell if an egg you have at home is fresh is to see if it floats: fresh eggs will sink, while older eggs float. As an egg ages, air is absorbed though the shell and it loses water and carbon dioxide through the pores making it lighter.

More on eggs. Egg size reflects the age of the hen: the older the hen the larger the egg. The breed, the weight, and conditions where they're raised can also contribute to size. Conditions can involve heat, stress, overcrowding, or poor nutrition. Extra Large, Large and Medium are the most common, but there are also Jumbo, Small, and Peewee. Egg grades are about ratio and quality of white to yolk; they are AA, A, and B. Grades AA and A have thicker whites and firm round yolks than B Grade eggs.

The voluntary USDA grading program, regulates, creates standards, grades, and classifies eggs based on weight for quality and price relationship to enable more orderly marketing. Egg grades do not necessarily mean that eggs are “contaminant free” but that they are paying a fair price in accordance with the official identification.

What about salmonella? The FDA, which is responsible for regulating the safety of shell eggs, has said new regulations that took effect in July will help prevent future salmonella outbreaks. The agency says it will inspect 600 of the largest egg processors over the next 15 months. Bills in Congress would expand FDA's food safety authority.  Currently, some retailers or food service companies are considering requiring egg farms to have salmonella-prevention measures in place, and more farms are expected to seek certification under a quality-assurance program operated by the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group. Currently, more than 100 egg processors are certified under the program for packing facilities, but only one egg farm, in California, is certified as a producer.

It is imperative that proper food safety precautions are followed when handling eggs.  Always wash hands with warm soapy water before and after handling eggs and make sure that when cooking eggs , the yolks and whites are cooked through and there are no runny bits.  Properly refrigerated, eggs can keep up to one month beyond their packing date, which is printed on carton. Keep them stored inside the carton, securely fastened. Eggshells have thousands of tiny pores, so never store them in an open basket or box, as the eggs will absorb odors from other foods. Also, though it may sound counterintuitive, don’t keep your eggs in that special  “egg unit” on the inside door of your refrigerator. Though it may be handy, it actually prevents proper airflow to your eggs.

Should you believe labels? Egg cartons have more labels on them then just about any other food, so you need to read them carefully. Remember that the use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s – so all eggs are hormone free by law.

Natural: The term is meaningless for eggs – according to FDA regulations, no additives or colors can ever be added to eggs.

Cage Free: Over 90 percent of all hens are raised in battery cages that are between 48 and 68 square inches. According to THE USDA and FDA, "cage-free" or "free-roaming" means that the hens are not in cages, however they still are confined in an enclosed building.

Free Range: Probably the most misunderstood of all the claims, it's important to note that hens basically stay near their food, water and nests, and the idea of a happy-go-lucky bird scampering across a field is far from their natural way of life. This claim only means that the hens have access to the outdoors, not that they avail themselves of the opportunity. The hens produce fewer eggs so they are more expensive; higher product costs add to the price of the eggs. The nutrient content is the same as other eggs.

Grass Fed: There is no USDA approved definition for this claim, and hens need a diet which includes protein, which naturally often includes eating bugs – Products from grass fed animals are thought to contain a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats.

Certified Humane: The farms meet specific criteria including: cage free, no antibiotics in feed, vegetarian feed, and allow the hens a natural environment for behaviors like preening and scratching.

Fertile: Fertile eggs are those that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are not more nutritious than other eggs and are usually priced higher than others, and are more perishable.

USDA Certified Organic: Organic eggs reflect the diet of the laying hens that eat only organic feed and grains grown without fungicides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers, pesticides and do not contain any animal or poultry by-products (but no regulations are in place for fish meal). No antibiotics or growth hormones are ever given to the hens and they are allowed access to the outdoors. The nutrient content is comparable to other eggs, but they are more expensive because of lower output per hen and higher production costs.

If you are able to purchase eggs at a farmers market, speak to your farmer about how their eggs are produced.