Eggs have been sold by individuals owning small to medium sized flocks for many years. At one time most eggs were sold from the farm to the local produce in many of the small cities in greater Minnesota. The small town the author was raised in had such a produce and employees hand candled eggs, and dry cleaned the shells using a sandpaper block to remove any visual dirt or stains. In the 1960’s and 70’s many of these small produces closed, as there became fewer small poultry flock owners. The egg industry in Minnesota has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. In 1957 there were 1,350 regulated egg dealers in Minnesota; today there are less than 20. Further, the commercial egg industry has multiple flocks ranging in sizes with as many as one million birds or more on a single facility.
However, in recent years there have been resurgences in the egg industry especially from those finding a niche market in selling eggs at health food stores, local restaurants, farmer’s markets or direct sales to the ultimate consumer using an established customer list. Many of the customers are looking for specific production practices that may vary from how the commercial industry produces eggs, such as free range birds, organic production, cage free, or chickens fed a vegetarian diet. In addition, to egg production there is an increase in the sales of poultry meat to these same groups of consumers.
Along with this resurgence, claims being made on packages have changed to highlight some of the practices used in producing eggs or poultry meat. These claims can vary from clearly identifying the practices used with no embellishments, to those that are fairly difficult for the producer to substantiate.
Egg grading and labeling requirements
The requirements for selling eggs can vary depending on the point of sale. Eggs sold from a person’s farm and directly to the ultimate consumer have very few regulatory requirements. Nevertheless, it is always good to follow food safety guidelines such as only selling clean eggs and to refrigerate eggs at 45ºF or less. Once eggs are sold off of the farm to a grocery store, restaurant or at a farmer’s market, the producer must meet all of the egg grading and labeling requirements. These include:
- All eggs must be clean.
- All eggs must be candled and meet State egg grading standards.
- Cartons or boxes of eggs must be labelled with the grade and size of the eggs, the name address and zip code of the packer a pack date following the Julian calendar (Day of the year) and a freshness date not to exceed 30 days from the date of packing.
- A safe Handling statement that says “Safe Handling Instructions. To prevent illness from bacteria, keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly”. In addition, the statement "Perishable, keep Refrigerated" must be on all cartons.
In addition to the required labeling, other claims can be used on the cartons. When deciding on a claim the first question you should ask yourself is how the claim can be substantiated. For example, if you state on the label that your eggs are from cage free chickens, they must be cage free at all times. There is no requirement for what size the area must be and cage free does not mean they have access to the outdoors.
Some of the claims that are more difficult to verify are terms like “Natural.”
The term natural is one that is used as a claim but has little definition to it. What is a natural egg? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the term natural as “minimally processed” which means that no additives have been used with the products, but has nothing to do with production practices.
Another term that can be misrepresented is the term “Organic.” Organic certification is regulated by USDA, Agriculture marketing Services (AMS). Only those producers which are organically certified can use the USDA “Certified organic” labeling and producers must be certified organic. There is an exemption for producers selling less than $5,000 each year of combined organic foods. Those exempted can label the products as organic, but must follow all of organic requirements and they cannot use the USDA certified organic labeling on their products.
Other claims that are made by some producers are those which list certain nutritional attributes of their eggs such as omega III fatty acids, high in choline or lutein, or being lower in cholesterol than regular eggs. You cannot make a general statement that your eggs are high in omega III fatty acids or lutein. You can only label the levels of the component such as “Contains X mg of omega III fatty acids.”
Since eggs normally are a good source of choline, that can be listed on the label as “A good source of choline.” Levels of cholesterol are variable and in most cases cholesterol levels in eggs have been reduced over the past number of years. USDA handbook 8 listed eggs as containing 213 mg of cholesterol and some egg producers have found that their eggs contain as low as 170-180 mg of cholesterol. In order to label eggs as being low in cholesterol, you would have to constantly produce eggs which are below 160 mg of cholesterol. Some companies have made claims on cartons that their eggs are lower in cholesterol than other eggs on the market.
Research completed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture showed that eggs on the market today have a significant lower cholesterol level than the data that was available when USDA handbook 8 was printed. Because of this, an egg containing 180 mg of cholesterol is very likely the average egg sing today’s feeding programs.
Another claim is the use of antibiotics or growth hormones or other growth promoting therapy in poultry production. Growth hormones are not allowed in poultry production and if this labeling is used on any poultry or egg labels it must also be accompanied by the statement that “Federal law prohibits the use of growth hormones in poultry production.”
Poultry Meat Labeling
Many of the same requirements in egg labeling apply to poultry meat as well. One of the major differences in the sales of poultry is that poultry sold to restaurants or grocery stores, must have been slaughtered and processed in a USDA inspected or State “Equal to” inspected poultry processing plant.
Processing or labeling requirements can become confusing at times especially when and attempt is being made to make a claim that is difficult to substantiate. The best advice is before you purchase labels for your product contact the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
From Proceedings of the “Midwest Poultry Federation Convention”, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.
Dairy and Food Inspection Director
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
St. Paul, MN