By: Abigail Ryan
Have you ever stopped to think that maybe the eggs you’ve just stirred into your cake batter have been on far more intense of journey in their few weeks of existence than you have taken this entire month or year? Maybe, for some, their entire lives? It is incredible the journey of the egg from the farm to your plate.
Honestly, you probably haven’t wondered that, and it’s no wonder. But the fact of the matter remains that a surprisingly few number of egg consumers understand the process an egg goes through before being carefully organized onto a shelf in the refrigerated section of your favorite grocery store.
No matter where you shop, the type and brand of egg you buy, and how many egg recalls are going on across the nation, eggs must be properly processed in order to be available for sale. The eggs you buy could be up to two months old, have traveled extensive distances, and possibly be well beyond their expiration date. Since these aren’t exactly the kinds of eggs you want to stock up on, it seems reasonable to educate yourself on the journey of your average egg in order to be sure you purchase the ones you want.
The Epic Journey of the Egg
Obviously, the egg’s journey begins inside the chicken. Once you have healthy hens, you will soon have healthy eggs. Chickens lay one egg per day on average, normally during the morning. Either a farmer will come retrieve the eggs or—since chicken coups are often made to make egg-gathering easier for the farmer—they roll down an incline built into the coup and land on a conveyor belt running the length of the barn.
Pete and Gerry, organic egg farmers, wrote an article in which they describe what happens next:
[The egg] will usually sit motionless on the belt until about 11AM when the farmer turns on the belt and gets ready to pack eggs in the packing room. The conveyor delivers the egg, along with several thousand others from that morning, to the packing station. A packing machine gently loads the eggs from the conveyor into plastic trays.
The process from here becomes rather fascinating! In most situations—ones like Burnbrae Farms—certain companies retrieved eggs from egg producers with refrigerated trucks in order to run them through their own grading machines, which highly complex and intelligent machinery used for cleaning, sorting, and packaging eggs based off individual quality. Margaret Hudson of Burnbrae Farms in Canada explains the purpose and functioning of a grading machine in a detailed video, saying that when their trucks bring back an untold amount of eggs from egg producers, they’re kept in a refrigerated room where tickets sort them: regular, Omega3, free run, etc. They’re careful to keep the eggs organized.
Next, ungraded eggs are moved into the grading room in order to sort them for supermarkets. Eggs are run through a massive contraption where a conveyor belt takes them through an egg-washing and -drying machine (eggs can carry salmonella on the outside of their shells, so it’s important to properly sanitize them and remove the bacteria).
Once properly cleaned, the eggs are sent through a “candling machine”. This stage is normally completed inside a dark room with a strong light shining up from below the conveyor belt, illuminating the eggs in order to easily review discrepancies in the eggs. An operator pulls out the imperfect eggs, removing those with cracks, dirty shells, and uncentered yolks. All the eggs that remain through the process are passing Grade A eggs, the ones for sale at your local supermarket.
After this, eggs are separated by weight: large, jumbo, regular, small, etc. This process is usually done with a computer system. Then the eggs are deposited into their proper food cartons, the cartons are coded, and then cartons are packed into bigger boxes, and boxes packed onto skids, and skids sorted via each grocery store’s order. After this, the only thing left is to be loaded onto trucks and distributed to the correct store, then the grocery store takes over the shelving and sales. You are obviously responsible for the purchasing and consumption.
Quite a process!
But how can you use this new understanding of the process to buy better eggs? Well, thanks to the codes that the grading companies stamp onto the egg carton (and sometimes the egg itself) you’re able to at least roughly determine the age of the egg, where it was packaged, and how long it will still be good. Most people are familiar with the good ol’ sell-by or expiration date. This is a handy dandy tell-tale that’ll give you the first warning of whether or not you should buy the egg (if the egg says EXP Aug 5 and it is already September 5th, don’t buy the eggs, kids).
But beyond that, there is also a three-digit number stamped onto egg cartons. This little code tells you what day of the year the eggs were packaged! So, if it says 009, then they were packaged on the 9thday of the year (January 9th). Granted, this can get confusing when the code says 267, but it’s an easy enough to estimate. For instance, if it’s Christmas break and that code says 123, maybe you should pick a different carton.
Lastly, there’s normally a plant number stamped on the carton which is where the eggs were packaged. In case you wanted to know.
See How Contamination Can Occur?
With so many different spots and stops on the journey to the grocery store, it is important to remember that contamination can occur. From farm to farmer to supplier to distributer, there are many different ways contamination can happen – from human interaction or just filth. This is why cooking eggs to their correct and optimum cooking temperatures is so important, to ensure you and the people you love do not get sick.
So, cook your eggs. Wash your hands.
Now, go do something cooler than an egg has done.