Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 1

I don't know about you, but before we got our egg dealer's license several years ago, I was frankly baffled by the various terminology of egg carton labeling. Although some of these labels are periodically re-defined , some things remain consistent; for example, egg sizes. What's so confusing about Large and Extra Large? Well, nothing, once you know what it means.

Egg sizes are determined by weight. The standard Large egg is 2 ounces. However, the difference between one egg size and the next is 1/4 ounce; thus, a Large egg is actually anywhere from 2 to 2-1/4 ounces, an Extra Large egg is between 2-1/4 and 2-1/2 ounces, and so on. Sometimes, because of the varying shapes of eggs, one egg might appear to be larger than another, when they are both the same weight. So when we are sorting our eggs by size, we weigh each egg to determine the size.

By the way, you cooks and bakers out there probably already know that most recipes calling for eggs specify the Large size egg. Now that you know a Large egg is 2 ounces, you'll know what to do when you want to use different size eggs: Measure the eggs by weight until you have the equivalent weight of the eggs called for in the recipe.

OK, on to egg grades. I had not the slightest idea what this meant. Simply, it is an indication of freshness, Grade AA being the freshest. How is this measured? It is determined by the size of the air space at the wide end of the egg; this is easiest to see when candling (shining a bright light through the wide end of the egg). Why? Because the egg shell is porous, and over time the contents gradually evaporate. So, the smaller the air space, the fresher the egg.

With commercial eggs, the catch is that this standard of freshness is applied when the eggs leave the place of production, not when they arrive at your grocery store. You can't tell just by looking at the eggs, right?

Let's go over one more label term this time: Free range. This term is unfortunately not as clear, definition-wise, as it might appear. Technically, for eggs to be labeled "free range," the hens must be allowed "access to the outdoors." What does that mean? (My husband David suggested that the hens are watching the Nature Channel while pumping out eggs.) In reality, it means very little. A commercial operation can comply with this requirement by simply installing one or two very small doors somewhere on an outside wall of their 20,000-hen facility, and making sure the door is open at least part of the day. Honestly, now, how many of those hens, in a place that huge, ever have a chance of even seeing the door? And even if they do go outside, who's to say there is grass out there?

The main problem with the term "free range" is that you can't know for sure. Your eggs might have come from birds who spent part of their day outdoors, but you simply have no way of knowing. It seems to me that without tighter definitions and oversight, "free range" isn't much more than an effective marketing tool. You'd expect to pay more for "free range" eggs, right? But what are you paying for?

Once again, it comes down to this: If you don't raise your own chickens, the best way to know that you're getting truly fresh eggs, from birds that have been treated humanely, is to visit the farm where the eggs are produced. Observe the operation. Talk to the farmer. You'll not only return home with eggs you can believe in, you'll establish a relationship that benefits you, the farmer, and your whole community.

In Part 2, I will talk about a few more egg carton labels, including one of my personal favorites (in a dubious sort of way): Vegetarian diet. Stay tuned, and please post your comments and questions.

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