COLLEGE PARK – The man who protects consumers from bad eggs knows that they are out there — cracked, dirty, rotten, diseased.
“I’m Ron Rogers with the Department of Agriculture,” he says to a convenience store cashier on a recent stop. “I’m here to inspect some eggs.”
Rogers will check 100 eggs during his inspection. They will determine the fate of all the eggs of that variety at the store in College Park. In this case, 142 dozen are on the line.
He leans into the cooler and puts eight cartons under one arm. Holding a ninth in his other hand, he heads for the store’s break room where he turns out the lights and begins holding the eggs up to a “candling light” that illuminates their insides.
After 35 years on the job, his mustache and hair are turning as white as the egg shells he inspects. To his expert eyes, the glowing eggs reveal all their secrets.
The air cell, almost always attached to the top of the egg, indicates freshness: The smaller it is, the fresher the egg. Rogers has a special gauge for measuring these air cells, but with his experience he can tell an egg’s quality at a glance.
He can even tell the age of the bird that laid it. Young hens push out peewees; the older ones drop jumbos.
With a flick of his wrist, Rogers spins each egg in front of the light, making the yolk swirl nearer the shell. Since the albumen, or white of the egg, thins as it ages, seeing less yolk also indicates fresher eggs.
Each examination is quick. Rogers grabs two eggs at a time with each hand, testing all four in less than five seconds. He reaches for two more fistfuls and then another two. Everything looks in order. Then he pauses.
“A crack!” he says.
When Rogers first began inspecting eggs back in the 1960s, it was legal to sell cracked eggs. It was also OK then for stores to keep eggs at room temperature. Not coincidentally, it was not uncommon for a cook to crack a rotten egg into a hot skillet.
These days, no more than 7 percent of the eggs in a batch can be cracked.
Another egg goes in front of the candling lamp, then another.
“A crack,” he says. “That’s two.”
Then another crack, and another.
Out of the 100-egg sample, 12 are cracked. Technically, the batch has failed, but to Rogers it is important to be fair. Just to be sure, he heads out for the storage cooler, where more cartons are stacked in crates.
He picks another nine dozen and finds seven cracks in the second batch before the store manager walks into the darkened room to ask how it is going.
“You’ll have to send them back.” Rogers says. “You can’t sell them.”
The manager is defensive, but Rogers firmly explains the law. He says he is not accusing the manager of anything: The eggs were cracked before they reached the store, probably at the processor’s plant.
The manager says he will call the supplier and complain. Rogers nods. That is what usually happens.
As they talk, the inspector examines another egg, and another. Then, suddenly, he stops. A grimace contorts his face.
“That’s a dirty egg,” he says. The words come out as if they have a nasty taste.
The manager looks at the egg. “That’s . . . poop,” the manager says.
“That, I get upset about,” Rogers says.
He sets the foul egg back in its carton with the offending material facing up, where no one can miss it. He plasters the 18 cartons he has just inspected and the crates of other eggs in the storage cooler with red stickers. Each reads, “Stop sale.”
In the front of the store, customers are shopping, unaware of the service Rogers has just provided. He walks past the display case, now empty of eggs, puts his candling lamp back in the trunk of his car and drives away.