What do the numbers and labels on egg cartons mean?


Whether you’re looking to buy the freshest eggs, checking to see if you fall within a recall batch, or simply want to understand the various labels that adorn a carton, here’s a breakdown of what each of the numbers mean and how the labels affect you.

The numbers on the side

Eggs you buy from a grocer or from a farmers market will have a series of numbers and usually a “best by” date stamped on the side. This is done in the plant, meaning that it is wholly independent of a retailer’s UPC bar code or any other identifying numbers added to the package after it leaves to be sold.

  • The three-digit number on the side of an egg carton references which day of the year that a particular egg was packed — so you’d see a number between 001 (representing January 1) and 365 (representing December 31) in this instance. Typically, eggs are considered fresh about four weeks after this date.
  • Next to the packing date, the longer number (a letter followed by a few digits) is the USDA plant identifier. This is specific to each packing plant, and in the instance of a recall, in conjunction with the packing date, this is a key identifier to focus in on.
  • Some cartons will have another number on it, which is specific to that packer’s business and is usually an internal identifier about which packer did the packing. Many egg packers don’t include this.
  • Finally, on the side, there’s a “best by” date, which is the recommendation from the packer as to when this product will be at its peak freshness.

For more about these numbers, watch this video from Simpson’s Eggs Inc.:

The USDA’s grading system

Want to know if you’re buying the best egg? Here’s what the USDA’s grading system looks like:

  • Grade AA: The freshest and highest quality eggs will receive a Grade AA.
  • Grade A: Very high-quality eggs will receive a Grade A.
  • Grade B: Grade B eggs are usually used for breaking stock (liquid eggs) and baking.

For general baking purposes, older eggs are fine to use, but for recipes where you will be whipping the egg whites, the freshest eggs are preferred.

Free-range, cage-free and other labels

Egg cartons today are littered with various types of labels, and some having meaning, while others, such as “all-natural,” have no legal definition and are nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

To better understand these labels, Michelle Miller, who operates the popular Farm Babe blog, has broken down six of the most-recognized industry label. Read her piece here.

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