The Omnifarious Plot

om·ni·far·i·ous /ˌämnəˈfe(ə)rēəs/ Adjective Comprising or relating to all sorts or varieties.

Making the Grade.

Since starting on our egg selling venture I have been asked multiple times about what goes into going legit, and what the requirements for grading eggs are. The reason we grade eggs is to assure a standard of quality, size, and freshness in an egg. This determines how we label them and to whom we are allowed to sell.

Licensing/Certification – In California we have only one required certification on the state level, called an Egg Handler’s Certificate. It is issued by the CA Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and is obtained by paying a fee, filling out an application with details about your operation, and by being open for inspection by the CDFA. Beyond the Egg Handler’s Certificate there are many other classifications you can apply for such as Certified Organic and Certified Humane, or Fertile Eggs. These certifications are great to have if you are a large operation, but they are numerous and occur on both the statewide and national level, each bringing their own applications, fees, and inspections. This might not be attainable for many of your smaller local farmers, and I suggest that a quick conversation with your provider might prove to be much more informative than a label might be. A sustainable farmer is likely to be proud of his practices and open to converse with you about them. Many even let you come check out their operations by having events, such as an “Open Farm” day.

Grading – Grading is determined by the “air cell” in an egg, which is a little pocket of air that develops in an egg as it ages. It is caused by evaporation of moisture through the porous shell. This is tested by using a bright light or candler and an air cell gauge to determine the size. This tells you how fresh your egg is, and gives you a view into it to see if there are any anomalies. This article from the Kentucky College of Agriculture gives some good examples what to look for.  The size labeling is done by weight, and can be Peewee, Small, Medium, Large, Ex-Large, and Jumbo. Unless the farmer is raising a novelty breed  (or the hen is JUST starting to lay), the eggs are likely to be somewhere between a medium and ex-large.  The other factors are egg shape, crack/leakers, and presence of any dirt or stains. There are specific tolerances on these depending on the size of your operation.

Labeling/Packaging – The last of the requirements for passing muster on your inspection are labeling requirements. Now for the small farmer the information can even be simply written in ink on the carton, but a stamp is not a bad idea. The information required on each NEW carton (that’s right, no recycling customer cartons) is the quantity,  julian date of the day they were packed, the “sell by” date, the size by weight, and the grade. You must also include name, address, and certificate number of the packer. Now what’s considered a “micro” farm, a flock under 500, is exempt from this all together if the eggs are sold in the presence of the producer/handler. I still choose to provide the majority of the information, but omit my home/farm address, so as to insure I don’t have any unexpected people showing up at my house for eggs.

What They Don’t Tell You – There are numerous reasons a carton might be labeled grade B rather than grade A or AA. It could be that the shell is stained a little too much, it could be that the eggs are packed in a “mixed bag” of sizes, or it could be that those eggs have been sitting around longer than you can tell by the pack date. The “sell by” date is 30 days from the “pack date”, NOT the date the egg was laid. This means that those eggs could be 3 or 4 weeks old before they get packed. Now this is compensated for by two things, the first being the air cell gauging, which lets you know they are fresh. If the air cell is too large, it would be a grade B. The other compensatory factor is that you may not label the eggs “fresh” if they are older than 30 days, so you could have a “fresh grade B” dozen of eggs and know that this is a grade B egg, but still a fresh egg. Confusing, isn’t it?

Also keep in mind that they do not have to let you know about the arsenic and other nasties in the feed of the conventional laying hens’ diet on that container, either.

So this brings me back to this – if you really want to know your eggs (and all your food in general, come to think of it), know your farmer. Go to the farmer’s market, go to your farm stand, CSA, or go to their website, facebook, email, whatever – and ask the questions. A good farmer will be happy to answer them for you.

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