Egg Basket Sullivan County New York
New York Times
March 10, 1982

EVER a source of mystery and wonder, eggs have been regarded as miracles throughout the history of civilization, inspiring awe in scientists and spiritualists, artists and designers. But perhaps the most bewildering mysteries posed by the egg are those facing the consumer: how to tell if an egg is fresh before you buy or eat it, and where to find eggs that are both fresh and flavorful - questions almost as puzzling as the old which-came-first enigma.

Almost is the operative word here, as one discovers by reading technical books and through interviews and visits with egg and poultry scientists at Cornell University's School of Agriculture in Ithaca, N.Y., at egg farms and processing plants and from retailers and wholesalers. This is the last of four articles on freshness in food.

If the information on a carton offers little firm assurance of quality (any egg, after all, can be put in any box), there are at least a few clues discernible even before an egg is cracked open. Once open, the egg reveals its age. Flavor, alas, cannot be evaluated before the egg is tasted, but freshness assures much in that direction.

If fresh eggs cannot be taken for granted, there are at least a few reliable sources in New York. Undoubtedly some eggs in some grocery cases in the city are really stale, but shopping around in all sorts of stores for a month and opening and tasting about 35 dozen eggs turned up none that were spoiled. However, most were tasteless and many seemed much older than the dates on their cartons indicated.

The best were found in small shops where owners buy from local sources and concentrate on freshness and quality. Most supermarkets offer a range from very fresh to not so very fresh, sometimes within the same carton. Judging by the dates on cartons, eggs in local stores vary in age from two to 30 days; most are between one and three weeks old. According to all industry sources, cold-storage eggs are virtually nonexistent.

"Modern methods of egg production have eliminated seasonal variations," said Dr. Robert C. Baker, chairman of the poultry department of Cornell's School of Agriculture, "and the kind of processed and preserved egg products that we develop here make more convenient and profitable uses of any surplus that previously would have been stored."

Eggs come to New York City through distributors or directly from farms in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York State (most especially from Sullivan County), as well as from the South, the Southwest and the Middle West, and occasionally from as far away as California. Refrigerated trucking and rapid mechanical processing have made it possible for eggs to remain technically fresh even if shipped across the country.

In general, it takes less time for locally produced eggs to reach New York stores, but it is conceivable that eggs from Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas could arrive before those from local farms. Since the point of origin is required on cartons only to earn the seal of a particular state, it is generally impossible to know where eggs originated.

"We like to think our eggs come from Connecticut and New Jersey," said Alfred Daitch, the buyer for the Shopwell and Food Emporium chains, "but how do we know that our suppliers didn't get them from Nashville, Tennessee?"

"Anybody can do just about anything with eggs, and they do," said Harry Muller, the manager of the egg marketing divisions of Agway, a large conglomerate that, among other things, sells feed to farmers in the Northeast and, as a service, markets their eggs.

"Mislabeling occurs, as does the switching of eggs in boxes and the changing or smudging of dates," he said. After being conveyed from hens, eggs are washed for from 15 seconds to three minutes in 110- to 120-degree water mixed with detergent, chlorine and sometimes ammonia. They are then air-dried and passed over lighted candling tables where they are examined for interior quality, and in some plants, they are covered with a thin film of clear, odorless oil. That oil replaces the cuticle or bloom on a newly laid egg meant to seal the porous shell and prevent bacteria from entering.

Washing or cleaning eggs destroys that cuticle, and both are illegal in all European Economic Community countries. Egg scientists in this country feel that despite the elimination of the bloom, the washing is valuable because it destroys surface bacteria that otherwise might penetrate the shell. Asked why, if the shell is so porous that bacteria or the aroma of other foods can penetrate, there is no danger of water with detergent and chlorine entering, both Dr. Baker and Andrew Wadsworth, the production manager of the farm of the Wegmans supermarket chain in Wolcott, N.Y., said that the temperature differential between water and egg prevents that from happening.

Having purchased some nest run (newly laid, unwashed and ungraded) eggs from the farm of the Wegmans chain, along with washed eggs said to be about 36 hours older, I found that the unwashed eggs retained their flavor six days longer, although both were almost equal when first tasted. Unwashed eggs from Vineland Poultry Farms on East 80th Street in New York exhibited the same long stability of flavor and freshness. Americans, it is said, prefer clean eggs, but those that were unwashed could hardly be called dirty, merely spotted here and there.

Shoppers attempting to judge egg quality in the store can begin with the information on the carton, realizing that what is stated may or may not be true. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs requires an expiration date on all egg cartons, although it is often missing in small stores and health food shops and illegible in many supermarkets.

The expiration date is the last day on which the eggs may be sold, even though they may be edible after that time. But that date is figured from the day on which the eggs were packed in cartons, not from when they were laid by hens, and so its meaning is somewhat nebulous. Grading indicates freshness. Grade and size of eggs are required on egg cartons by New York State law, and on signs if eggs are sold in bulk.

The most reliable gradings are those that appear within the shield marked U.S.D.A., because plants packing eggs so marked must have on the premises a full-time inspector who is an employee of the Agriculture Department but who is paid by the packer. That inspector examines sample batches of the eggs being packed by hand-candling them (holding them in front of an intense, concentrated pinpoint of light that replaces the candle that gave this process its name), reading their interiors.

When candling eggs, inspectors look at the blunt end to measure the air space. In a very fresh egg, it will be very small, roughly the size of a dime, and as the egg ages the space grows larger. It should also be fixed and not free-floating or ruptured. When an egg is open, that air pocket formed by the inner shell membrane can be seen. If a hard-cooked egg that is peeled does not have a full egg-shaped white, it was stale when cooked.

Candlers also check the egg yolk for visibility and position. Because the white of a fresh egg is thick, and slightly cloudy from the presence of carbon dioxide, it obscures the yolk from view. The more discernible the yolk, the clearer the white and the staler the egg.

If an egg is held in the palm and shaken gently and a rattle is felt, it is not very fresh; in a newly laid egg the thick white cushions the yolk and the egg is solid when shaken. Top-quality eggs must be free of blood spots or what are called meat spots, both of which are generally visible during candling, although more difficult to see through brown shells.

States such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York have inspection programs and seals of their own, which may appear with or without the Agriculture Department gradings. The Pennsylvania seal merely means the eggs were packed in the state, but they could have been produced anywhere. Eggs with the New Jersey seal must have been produced as well as packed in the state, and the red Empire State seal has the same meaning for New York.

Federal and state inspectors also make surprise visits to egg packing plants, and state inspectors even visit retail stores to check freshness. Anyone can put a grade on an egg box, but if an inspector finds that the product falls short of the grade indicated, the dealer can be fined.

Buddie Adkins, the Federal-state supervisor for the poultry division in Albany, who is in charge of farm and plant inspections in New York, Connecticut and Vermont, said that he did not know how much the fines were because none were issued in 1981, although a few letters of warning were sent. Asked if he thought it was likely that no one would misrepresent, he said, "Well, we check four times a year so it's possible we miss some."

Donald Conners, chief of farm products inspection for the New York State Department of Agriculture, directs the checking of eggs in retail stores. "In the two and half years we have handled this program," Mr. Conners said, "We have had many violations on grade and size throughout the state and city. Fines ranges from $50 to $200 but could be higher."

Eggs are sized by weight, not volume, and the size is averaged out in a dozen. Jumbo eggs must weigh 30 ounces or more a dozen; extra large between 27 and 30 ounces a dozen; large between 24 and 27 ounces a dozen; mediums from 21 to 24 a dozen, and smalls, 18 to 21 a dozen.

In a given box some eggs may be below size and others above, which makes a recipe imprecise unless egg quantity is expressed by weight or volume, that is, for example, 2 ounces or 1/2 cup. The city's Consumer Affairs Department monitors accuracy of weight by spotchecking in stores.

Grading is determined by freshness as well as the interior quality of the egg white and yolk. Grade AA is the highest rating, but it is not often seen because that grade must have a 10-day expiration date.

Dealers who don't want to abide by that limitation prefer to handle Grade A eggs, which have a 30-day shelf life. Some stores and supermarkets request two- or three-week expiration dates for safety's sake. The grade, like the size, may be averaged out within a dozen eggs, so again a few may be above or below grade requirements. Some stores or packers have requirements more stringent than the government's, especially since Federal grading regulations have increased tolerances.

In this country, it is considered essential to chill eggs immediately after they are laid or processed and to keep them refrigerated until they are eaten.

Flavor in eggs is even more elusive than freshness and is most discernible in the yolks of eggs that are gently fried, poached or soft-boiled. It is only slightly less so when they are scrambled or in omelets, although fresh eggs tend to be fluffier than stale in the last two preparations, because of the presence of carbon dioxide..

The proper flavor is hard to describe because what a good egg tastes like is a good egg; the yolk has a richness that translates as a texture on the tongue with a quintessential clean, fresh-air dairy flavor. Acidity increases as the yolk ages and so sweetness, or the lack of acid, is a point of judging. To keep the flavor of fresh eggs intact, be sure they are stored well covered so they do not absorb odors of other foods around them.