Egg Expiration Dates Are Not Regulated The Way You Might Have Thought They Were

The eggs in your fridge might be a lot older than you thought they were. Expiration dates on egg cartons are unregulated, and there can be weeks — even a couple of months — in between when an egg is harvested and when it has to be removed from grocery store shelves. The prospect of old eggs might sound scary, but, by learning to decode the labeling on your egg carton, you can ensure that the eggs you buy and eat are fresh and safe.

As Rheanna O’Neil Bellomo at Delish points out, Facebook has been abuzz in the last few days with a post from Fresh Eggs Daily that claims that the eggs you buy at the grocery store might be as many as 45 days old. The post reads, in part,

A few weeks ago I mentioned how the average grocery store egg might be 45 days old (or more) by the time you buy it. A few people asked for proof (beyond the LAW which states that a farmer has 30 days to carton and egg and then another 30 days to sell that egg after it's been cartoned).
So today (1/19) I was shopping and snapped a few photos of some egg cartons. EVERY date I saw on them was between 352-355, meaning that those eggs were put in that carton on the 352nd-355th day of last year. Add to that the 19 days so far this year, and these eggs have all been in the carton for about a month (and could have been laid up to 30 days prior to that) and check out the Sell by dates — these eggs can still sit on the shelf for a few more weeks.

The US Department of Agriculture’s “Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements For Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products” states,

There are seven requirements for egg products labeling: product name; manufacturer’s name; official identification; USDA approval number; ingredients statement; net weight statement; and nutrition information.

Notice anything missing? There’s no required expiration date! In fact, according to Delish, the FDA doesn’t require expiration dates or “best before” labels for any products except baby formula. (Some states may have laws requiring expiration dates for certain foods). When you see an expiration date on a product, it’s there because the company that made it chose to include one.

Egg cartons usually feature a bunch of numbers on them, and if you know how to read them, you can learn a lot about the actual age of the eggs you’re buying. This handy infographic from the USDA explains it:

Egg cartons usually feature two dates: The expiration date and the packaging date. This latter date signifies when the eggs were put in their carton. This date is in Julian date format, which labels days according to where they fall on an annual scale of 1 to 365. So, as the poster illustrates, a carton with “032” on it means that the eggs were packaged on the 32nd day of the year, or February 1. You can safely keep eggs in the refrigerator for four to five weeks beyond the packaging date. (If you don't automatically know how a number like "163" translates into the calendar, you can find a converter here.) (The answer is June 12).

Although the government doesn’t mandate expiration dates for eggs, the FDA and the USDA both have a lot to say about how eggs are stored and transported. Because refrigeration helps to prevent bacteria growth, the USDA requires that all eggs be moved and stored at 45 degrees F. Once eggs make it to store shelves, they must continue to be kept at that temperature. When you purchase eggs, be sure to keep them cool and safe to eat by putting them in the coldest part of your fridge.

Image: USDA