USDA Egg Grades: How the Egg gets a Grade

Have you ever wondered what the little shield symbols on store-bought egg cartons mean? And maybe… more importantly, how those shields qualify those eggs to sold to the general public? In this article, I explain how eggs are graded as well as how the shields are used to qualify eggs for human consumption according to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)…

Image of egg grading shields from sis.usda.gov

The Grades

There are three different food grades (as far as eggs are concerned) that eggs are labeled under. Those grades are AA, A and B. Grade AA is the finest quality, grade A is the second highest quality and grade B is the most inferior quality.

Grade AA Standard

In order for eggs to be deemed grade AA by the USDA, they must have firm whites, round yolks that are (for the most part) free of defects and clean/undamaged shells.

Grade A Standard

In order for eggs to be deemed grade A by the USDA, they must have ‘fairly’ firm whites as well as round yolks that are (for the most part) free from defects and clean/undamaged shells.

Grade B Standard

In order for eggs to be deemed grade B by the USDA, they must meet the set standards for safe human consumption. This means that the shells must be undamaged/unbroken. However, the shells may have defects. Grade B eggs may also have yolks that are not completely spherical, thin whites and stained shells. Grade B eggs are usually only sold in liquid, frozen or dried forms. This is largely for the reason that they often have to many blemishes/defects to be appealing to the general public. However, they are still deemed safe for consumption by the USDA.



Food Grade Eggs in the Store

In order for eggs to be considered safe for human consumption, they must pass inspection. However, they must also be classified and sorted by weight and quality..

Temperature

Eggs that are approved for human consumption must have a temperature certification. In order to be certified, the eggs must have been kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit (beginning no longer than 36 hours after being layed). The eggs can only be certified if they were kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit until they reached the grocery store.

Transportation

Eggs that are approved for human consumption can only be transported in refrigerated vehicles. The vehicles used to transport the eggs have to be food certified (which means that they are allowed to transport food only).

Date

A date stamp on the egg carton ensures that spoiled eggs are not sold to consumers. According to regulation, date stamps must be in this order: (prefix) month/day/year. There are multiple types of date stamps and different regulations apply to different date stamps.

Prefixes such as “EXP” and “Sell by” mean that eggs should not be sold to consumers after the date. The “Sell by” date must to be within 30 days of the eggs being packaged for sale.

Prefixes such as “Best by”, “Best before”, “Enjoy by” and “Use before” mean that it is advised the food be consumed by the given date. Eggs that are past their “Best by” date are not inedible (as long as they have been properly stored). However, eggs that have exceeded their best-by date may be inferior in quality. Legally, the “Best by” date must be within 45 days of the day that the eggs were packaged for sale (counting the day the eggs were packaged).

Sanitation

As a hen lays an egg, it covers it with a clear coating (aka: Bloom or Cuticle). The bloom protects bacteria on the shell from passing through one of the ~7,000 pores on that shell. However, when the eggs are washed before packaging, this coating is removed. In order to keep bacteria from getting on the inside of the eggs (and thus, keeping them from spoiling), an artificial coating is applied to the eggs before they are packaged. This coating keeps eggs fresh for longer and helps prevent bacterial contamination. For this reason, the USDA advises that consumers do not wash store-bought eggs.

Size Regulations

 Chicken eggs are sorted by size. However, egg size does not effect the egg quality. There are there are 6 different size categories (Jumbo, Extra large, Large, Medium, Small and Peewee). Eggs are classified and sold under one of these 6 categories:

Jumbo eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 30 ounces

Extra large eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 27 ounces

Large eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 24 ounces

Medium eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 21 ounces

Small eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 18 ounces

Peewee eggs: minimum weight requirement (per dozen): 15 ounces


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