Cracking The Egg Carton Code: Date Codes Explained

Confused by the numbers printed on egg cartons? Us too. So we hatched a plan to decipher them.

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February 3, 2016
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Ever wondered if supermarket eggs were so old they’d become a breeding ground for salmonella? After all, you can’t tell an egg’s age by looking at it. And the numbers printed on the carton seem to require a Cold War code-breaker. But that’s where you’ll find the answers; fortunately, you don’t need a mathematics degree to understand them.

Eggs coming from plants producing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-graded eggs must display the date they were packed, a three digit code called the Julian date. The Julian date indicates how long ago the eggs were packaged. Reading the three-digit code is a bit tricky with January 1 reflected as 001 and December 31 as 365. This is the most useful date on the carton of eggs.

The FDA gives farmers 30 days to place an egg in a carton and then another 30 days to sell that egg after it’s been placed in a carton. That means it’s possible to purchase eggs at the supermarket that are 60 days old!

Many cartons of eggs have a “sell-by” or “use-by” date. It’s important to understand that these dates are not required by the federal government. The guidelines for dates on a carton of eggs vary from state to state. And some states have no guidelines at all.

The use of code dates on USDA-graded eggs is optional; however, if they are used, certain rules must be followed.

– A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Expiration dates can be no more than 30 days from the day the eggs were packed in the carton.

– A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. This may not exceed 45 days past the pack date.

– A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product. This may not exceed 45 days past the pack date.

– “EXP” Expiration dates can be no more than 30 days from the day the eggs were packed into the carton.

You can store fresh shell eggs in their cartons in the refrigerator for 3-5 weeks beyond the date you purchase them. The “sell-by” date will usually expire during that time, but according to the USDA the eggs are perfectly safe to use.

Before buying your next carton of eggs look at the dates stamped on the carton and try to gain an understanding of how long those eggs have been sitting in their carton. It’s entirely possible that the eggs you’re reaching for at the supermarket aren’t fresh. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. Provided they’ve been refrigerated within the time frames mentioned above they are safe to eat.

Are you ready for fresh eggs? Try purchasing eggs through a CSA or maybe it’s time to invest in backyard chickens!

Did you know: Hens with white feathers and earlobes lay white-shelled eggs, and hens with red feathers and earlobes lay brown eggs. And there’s no nutritional difference between the eggs.

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