Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Do Your Chickens' Eggs Make the Grade?

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by Meredith Chilson

The spring chicks have begun laying eggs, and the older hens are winding down their cycle toward the annual molt. As a result, I gather a wide variety of sizes of eggs: from the tiny first eggs known as pullet eggs or “pee-wee” to the extra-extra large eggs that often contain a double yolk. I displayed one day’s gathering on our kitchen table, and there was such a difference in sizes, I thought, “This week I’ll write about grading eggs!”

I remember helping my mother grade eggs in her cool basement “workshop” in the farmhouse.  She had a big flock of White Leghorns, and sold eggs to people in the neighborhood as well as to a commercial chicken farm not far away. Every week, we washed, sorted, candled and graded on a little scale plain white eggs and packed them into flats and on into cardboard crates. Then we’d take the backseat out of the car and load the crates and take them over the hill to the poultry farm to be sold.

Imagine my surprise when I began researching for this article and discovered that grading eggs really has nothing to do with size! Grading is sorting into three classifications, determined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and based on the quality of the interior and exterior of the egg. The size (or weight) of the egg is really not considered until time comes to set a price. Shell color is not considered when grading either, although again, when pricing, it seems that brown eggs command a higher price. An XXL egg and a peewee are graded equally as to whether they are AA, A, B or … rejected. 

Externally, Grade AA eggs have clean, unbroken shells. They are oval in shape with one end larger than the other. Internally, the Grade AA eggs will show to be fresh. Candling is one way to judge the interior of the egg at home. According to the Incredible Edible Egg: “Higher grade eggs have shallower air cells. In Grade AA eggs, the air cell may not exceed 1/8 inch in depth and is about the size of a dime.”

Grade A eggs have the same specifications for external grading; the difference is in the internal or interior quality. The air cells are larger; the eggs are a bit older.

Grade B eggs are not usually found on the supermarket shelf. They may have slightly stained, ridged shells, an odd shape or possibly even a thin spot or calcium deposits, although they must not have cracks or breaks. Internally, there is no limit on the size of the air cell. These eggs can be used commercially, however. Grade B eggs are the ones used in powdered egg products or liquid eggs in the food industry.

Rejected or restricted eggs are those with broken shells, cracks or other marks of obvious unsoundness. 

Appearance is the most important external point. 

I noted that candling is a way to judge the interior of an egg at home. Commercial poultry enterprises have huge mechanical candling setups that automatically grade or reject eggs.

Another way to grade eggs internally, though, is through the “break-out” method and then following the Haugh unit system to judge the yolk and white of the egg. 4-H members taking a poultry/egg judging unit will learn this method. Just as the name suggests, an egg is broken onto a flat surface and points are added or subtracted. In a very fresh egg, for example, the white (or albumen) will be clear and quite thick and the yolk will be firm and round. Looking at the egg at eye level, you should be able to see the egg white as well as the yolk.

In the Grade AA egg, there will be no blood spots. A Grade A egg needs to have a “reasonably firm” white—it will spread a bit further when broken. This is because the Grade A egg will be a bit older—remember the size of the air cell? The older an egg, the more air that will enter through the shell, and this will cause the albumen to break down a bit and spread further.

A Grade B egg, when judged this way, may spread quite a bit on the plate. The relationship in height of the albumen to the yolk, when seen from the side, will usually show the yolk, but not much white. Blood or meat spots are allowed, as long as they are 1/8 of an inch or less in size. The University of Kentucky has a great website here that explains the judging process in detail with lots of accompanying photos.

After all this, the size of an egg does come into play, but it’s weight that matters. A dozen “jumbo” eggs, according to the American Egg Board will weigh 30 ounces and the minimum weight of 30 dozen will be 56 pounds. A Pee Wee is half the size. A dozen should weigh 15 ounces, and the 30 dozen weight minimum is 28 pounds. Just like the assortment we gather daily, that’s quite a difference.

The USDA sets these grades and they apply to commercial chicken eggs. As it turns out, I “grade” my own chickens’ eggs a bit differently. I don’t sell eggs—although any we don’t use here in my kitchen I “give” to my friends and neighbors, and they almost always donate a bit back toward chicken feed. I like to make sure that any eggs given out from this homestead are clean and fresh. A dozen eggs will always have 12, but there might be a USDA Grade AA, three Grades A and eight Grades B. Quite often, shells show calcium spots and are irregular; they might have a stain or two, and internally these eggs may have a blood meat spot—the largest eggs are coming from girls that have been laying eggs for four years, and that sometimes happens
with eggs from older hens. Sometimes lately, I’ve been including two pullet eggs in place of one larger egg, too. I know which eggs come from which chickens. Jimmy lays nice, big pink eggs. One of the Rhode Island Reds has been laying double-yolkers lately, and one of the Buff Orpington hens has been leaving tiny “wind eggs” in her nest box. One of the ways I check up on my small flock is by checking over—grading—their eggs. The Rhodey and the Buff are no doubt ending their laying cycle for the year. Jimmy is healthy—I find about five of her eggs a week in the nest. The occasional “egg in a sack”—the one without a solid shell—is coming from one of the new layers. Just like those that lay tiny pullet eggs, their internal egg-laying mechanisms are gearing up for production.

In my childhood, we graded eggs for the community by size: Small, Medium, Large. We knew they were fresh, and we used a candler to make sure there were no blood spots. My mother’s sales were based on egg size/weight more than anything else. Today’s big commercial “factory farms” must distribute their eggs based on the USDA’s rules of internal and external quality. Me? I grade on health, freshness and happy hens. I like those criteria!

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