Unscrambling Shell Egg Certification

March 28, 2018

As technology and social media continue to increase our access to information, there has been a lot of focus on transparency and accountability within the food industry. In a Forbes article published last October, Leslie Wu cited transparency as one of the top trends to shape food products in 2018. From where does our food come? How was it made or grown? What does it mean to shop organic or buy local? These are questions that we are confronted with now in almost every department of our grocery stores, and even if you are not necessarily shopping with these interests in mind, the list of options can be overwhelming. You have a lot of choices in the supermarket, even when it comes to something as simple as a grocery list staple—eggs.

When shopping for eggs, you have probably noticed the array of options that go beyond color, size, and even grade. For years, shell eggs have been graded by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) on a voluntary, fee-for-service basis. During their inspections, licensed AMS graders evaluate plant sanitation, processing procedures, egg quality, egg weights and product storage temperatures on a continuous basis throughout the production day. This service holds providers accountable to certain standards while giving consumers peace of mind and a sense of agency as they choose the grade of eggs from the shelf. Until recently, the USDA Grade system was simply three choices: Grade AA indicating the “freshest and highest quality” eggs, Grade A meaning “very high quality,” and then Grade B denoting the eggs would be best used as “breaking stock” for baking. These categories remain, but recently, consumers have been more concerned with the living conditions of the hens during their production cycle. This shift in focus has created three more categories which the USDA oversees and certifies – organic, cage-free, and free range.

If the eggs are labeled USDA organic, “the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

To be considered USDA cage-free, the eggs “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.”

Finally, USDA certified free range eggs come from hens “housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”

It is important to note that the USDA’s AMS is not the only service that offers inspection and certification of the conditions of hens during the production of eggs. Other organizations, such as Humane Farm Animal CareUnited Egg Producers Certified, and American Humane Certified offer inspection and certification services as well. Each of these organizations has slightly different standards for their certifications, and their information is easily accessible online.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when reaching for a carton of eggs, but at the end of the day, the choice is yours and depends on your budget, access to certain products, and your preferences. Hopefully, equipped with this information, you can truly understand your options and make the best decision for you!