Many shoppers are finding the egg aisles are a bit emptier than usual during the coronavirus pandemic as grocery stores across the country struggle to keep them in stock amid increased consumer demand.
Despite the barren shelves, there isn’t a shortage of eggs in the United States. However, the change in demand has disrupted the country’s traditional supply chain, which means there are plenty of eggs ready to be eaten, but they can't be shipped to their usual buyers. In an effort to combat this problem, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new guidelines earlier this month to temporarily relax several restrictions on how eggs are packaged and labeled.
“The pandemic has created a market imbalance,” the federal agency said in its initial guidance. “The egg industry has expressed concern that, absent additional flexibility to redirect eggs… producers may have difficulty meeting the increased consumer demand.”
While the temporary guidelines are expected to help get more eggs to market faster, since there are so many different types of eggs available (jumbo, large, organic, cage-free, etc.) some consumers have expressed concern that the new ruling may make it difficult to discern what they're actually buying.
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How has egg carton labeling changed?
Typically, eggs are sold in packaging with FDA-approved labeling that includes details like the name of the manufacturer, egg size and grade, safe handling instructions and a nutrition label. But right now, the demand for eggs is outpacing the availability of such packaging.
“Additional shell eggs for consumers are available, but appropriately labeled retail packaging is not available for all such shell eggs,” the FDA explained. “We are providing temporary flexibility regarding certain packaging and labeling requirements for shell eggs so that industry can meet the increased consumer demand.”
The FDA’s temporary guidance aims to remove that obstacle by allowing stores and other food retailers to sell eggs in packages without certain labels on the actual egg cartons themselves, but the same information must still be made available to shoppers in different way.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author, told TODAY that the purpose of the guidance is, in large part, to allow eggs typically packaged and distributed to places like restaurants and schools (where demand has dropped), to now be sold in supermarkets.
According to Taub-Dix, eggs sold to food processors and high-volume facilities tend to come in much bigger packages (like pallets) that look different and are labeled differently than the smaller cardboard or styrofoam cartons everyday shoppers typically find. With the relaxed guidelines in place, consumers may notice stores selling eggs in larger quantities, or they may be packaged in very basic, unlabeled containers.
Stores are still required to put tags on the eggs or post larger signs at the "point of purchase" informing people about what the product is, as well as provide manufacturing details and safe handling instructions. Retailers will also be required to clearly differentiate products from different suppliers. Further, stores may not post any nutritional claims about a product that does not contain a label.
The biggest change consumers may find is that eggs of different grades and sizes may be boxed together. Egg size refers to an egg's weight (not just how big it looks), while egg grade refers to the texture and appearance of the product. An egg's grade does not affect its taste, but it might matter depending on what you're cooking.
According to the USDA, AA eggs "have whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells." Grade A eggs are similar to AA, except their whites are "reasonably" firm. Grade B eggs have "whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than eggs of higher grades," and their shells may be slightly discolored. Eggs graded as AA or A are best for poaching, frying and any other preparation in which the appearance of the egg itself is important. For any other purposes, like scrambling or baking, grade B eggs are fine.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist Frances Largeman-Roth said the relaxed restrictions on nutritional labeling are unlikely to create a major concern for consumers, as long as the eggs are stored properly.
“Most people don’t read the safe-handling instructions that are usually printed on the cartons because eggs are an everyday ingredient that most people are used to handling,” the nutrition and wellness expert told TODAY.
Is it still safe to buy eggs?
While the packaging might be different, the product itself is essentially the same: You're still buying eggs.
“Next time you’re at the store, if (you) do see eggs appear in this form … it doesn't mean that (you’re) not getting the same eggs that (you) otherwise would have gotten,” said Taub-Dix, who added eggs are still going through the same safety checks whether they're sold to grocers or restaurants.
The new minimalist packaging may lack some details about how the eggs were produced or raised, information that has become increasingly important to shoppers looking for organic or ethically produced food. However, a representative for the USDA, which oversees the country's organic labeling program, confirmed to TODAY that the FDA's relaxed guidelines do not affect organic, cage-free or free-range eggs.
While some stores may be supplementing supply with eggs from new purveyors, many places will likely also have a selection of clearly labeled eggs from brands that are continuing to produce eggs under stricter guidelines. Shoppers should still look for eggs packaged with those details if they want to be sure that their eggs are organic or cage-free, however those cartons may be harder to come by, according to Taub-Dix.
What to look for at the grocery store
When it comes to shopping for eggs, Largeman-Roth advised consumers to take several precautions before selecting a carton.
Before picking up a carton, make sure the exterior is clean and undented. There should be no little pieces of broken shell, yolk or egg white visible. Typically, consumers should open a carton of eggs and inspect the eggs for any signs of cracking on the surface, but that may not be advisable in the current crisis.
“Under normal circumstances consumers might open the lid of the carton to ensure that all the eggs are intact," Largeman-Roth explained, "but we’re trying to shop quickly these days and without touching things too much if we don’t need to."
If you are going grocery shopping and you know you need to pick up eggs, Largeman-Roth advised wearing a pair of gloves, "preferably disposable plastic ones," if they want to "open the egg cartons and see if the eggs are of uniform size and also ensure that they’re free of cracks."
Since the FDA is requiring stores to post information about shell eggs near where they are sold, consumers should also read any available signage before making a purchase.