A Carton of Eggs: Part 1 - Hipster Hen Wonder Eggs

Here’s the cool and unique thing about eggs: They come with their own container - the eggshell.  Granted bananas and potatoes have their peel, and oranges and melons have their rind, but what other animal-sourced food is prepackaged?  I can’t think of any!

Of course, you seldom buy just one egg.  They usually come in batches of a dozen, and those dozen eggs need to be contained in something – hence the egg carton.  In addition to keeping eggs grouped together, a carton provides stability and cushioning in transport; an important thing - we’re talking about a product that is “as fragile as eggs”, after all.   An egg carton also provides lots of blank space that can be filled up with information, promotional messages, and art.  And that’s as important a carton function as either of the others.  Selling, after all is about merchandising, and merchandising is about branding.  An eggshell is pretty anonymous.  When you look at an eggshell, you don’t learn a whole lot about the hen that laid the egg.  It’s not like she has the ability to stamp her initials or trademark on the egg as she lays it.  But then the hen really doesn’t care too much about branding.  The egg company cares though, thus all those words and pictures on a carton.

In this series of articles I’m going to take a look at those words and pictures.  Do you actually read your egg cartons?  I’m going to guess that you pay attention to the name and the art and that you don’t think too much about anything else.  That would make you pretty normal. Or maybe you’ve read some of the fine print and wondered what it really meant.  I’ve wondered, so I decided to get to the bottom of it.  I went to my local grocery store, bought a few carton of eggs (yeah, I know I have chickens and need eggs like a fish needs a bicycle, but this was a project!)  Then I set out to find out what I could about all the information printed there.

It’s only fair that I start this series by talking about my own egg cartons.  Yup, I have cartons, and those cartons have labels. Back when my first hens started laying their first eggs, I began to put eggs into cartons and hand them out to friends. And those cartons needed a label! A disparaging article about the growing backyard chicken movement was making the rounds about that time. The article disapprovingly talked about "hipsters with hens". So I borrowed that phrase, and gave it a positive twist. My hens became the Hipster Hens, and the egg cartons labels proclaimed "Hipster Hen Wonder Eggs". 

The art on my first cartons was a whimsical picture by Wisconsin artist Susan Martin called “Three Wise Chickens.”  Last year my wife, Kathy, commissioned Susan to do a portrait of four of my chickens as a birthday surprise for me.  The picture of Snowball, Emily, and Courtney the Silkies and Angitou the Golden Laced Polish entitled “Snowball and His Hens” is the art I use on my cartons now and, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is also the Randy’s Chicken Blog Facebook profile picture.

Is this statement valid?  How do I know my hens are happy?  Well, folks, I just know – they sure act like they’re happy.  And the cage-free part is true without a question.  Most laying hens still spend the totality of their lives in torture chambers called “battery cages”.  While a few of my hens have spent some time in a broody crate, for the most part they have lots of space to move around in large indoor coops. And when the weather’s nice they’re outside.

There is more background information lurking behind these three simple sentences than you can shake a stick at.  Food safety is very important and it’s also very regulated.  To ease into a discussion of the safe handling instructions, let’s start with the last two words:  ungraded eggs.  What is egg grading anyway?  What does it mean when grocery store eggs carry a “Grade A” or “Grade AA” and why is it OK for Hipster Hen Wonder Eggs to carry no such designation?

Egg grading is done by professional egg graders who work for the US Dept. of Agriculture.  Grade AA eggs, according to the USDA website, “have whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells.”  Grade A eggs, “have characteristics of Grade AA eggs except that the whites are ‘reasonably’ firm.”  Grade B eggs, “have whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than eggs of higher grades.”  If you think about it, you probably will realize that you’ve never seen Grade B eggs in the grocery store.  Grade B eggs are practically never sold as whole shell eggs, but get dried, frozen, or put into other products.  Note that the big difference between the egg grades is that the egg whites become thinner and the yolk becomes bigger as the grade goes down. As an egg ages, the yolk absorbs water from the white and enlarges, at the same time the proteins in the egg white start to break down and the egg becomes thinner.  So egg grade is mostly a function of how old the egg is. 

Egg grading is a service that the USDA offers to egg companies, but it isn’t mandatory.  Most commercial egg companies choose to use this service.  The Hipster Hens are not part of a commercial egg company and have opted out of that service.  Nevertheless, Wonder Eggs are very, very fresh. 

Phew.  That was two paragraphs about two words.  Now let’s tackle the word “unwashed.”  The subject of egg washing really deserves its own blog post and someday I’ll write one.  In the meantime, here’s a thumbnail.  By law, commercial egg companies in the US are required to wash the eggs they sell.  Small “farm to table” type operations are exempt from that law, hence Wonder Eggs are unwashed.  The egg washing laws are in place because of the fear of Salmonella.  It’s a rational fear – any product that comes from an animal can contain harmful bacteria.  Studies have proven what any reasonable person would expect:  Washing eggs reduces the number of bacteria on an eggshell.  Here’s the problem though – eggshells in their natural state have a layer of “paint” called bloom that the hen deposits on the eggshell surface right before she lays the egg.  Washing the egg washes off the bloom, and then the eggshell becomes porous to water and harmful bacteria.  Washing an egg incorrectly can actually wash bad bacteria right into the egg!  That’s why most countries don’t wash their eggs and some countries, like Britain, actually have laws against egg washing.  The procedure for washing eggs in the US is stringent and rigid to assure that bacteria isn’t being washed into the eggs.  And then to be doubly sure that no bacteria will grow in the eggs after washing, the law stipulates that eggs be transported and stored at refrigerator temperatures.  Britain and all the European Union countries, on the other hand, display their eggs on regular old room-temperature grocery store shelves.

OK then.  We’ve managed to get through three words.  What about the rest of the statement about keeping the eggs in the fridge and cooking them well?  Again, it’s all about being safe from Salmonella and other bad bacteria.  As a retired microbiologist who spent a lot of years working in public health, I have learned that it’s better to be safe than sorry when working with any animal product be they eggs, meat, or dairy products.  Any animal-sourced food that isn’t pasteurized should be thoroughly cooked.  Salmonella can actually be inside the egg since it’s possible for it to live in a hen’s oviduct and become incorporated into the egg as the egg is being formed.  In Britain, land of the unwashed, unrefrigerated egg, there’s a legal requirement that egg producers vaccinate their hens against Salmonella.  There’s no such law on the books in the US, so treat any eggs you cook as a possible source of Salmonella regardless of where they come from.

 Then we come to the back of the label, visible from the inside of the egg carton.  Here we get another picture – one of the Hipster Hens.  The picture changes frequently.  And then there’s always some sort of chicken related factoid, which also changes quite often.  Finally, there’s the “Use By” date.  Legally, the “Use By” date for eggs “may not exceed 45 days including the day the eggs were packed into the carton.”  I give my eggs 35 days.

So there you go.  Should you ever come to possess a carton of Hipster Hen Wonder Eggs, nothing on the carton label should be mysterious to you.  It’s probably more likely that the eggs in your fridge came from the grocery story though, so I’ll talk about some of them for the next few posts.

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