What’s an Egg, Really?

Never mind what came first. The real question is how to define an egg.

Fast food chains are questioning the real nature of egg this week. Following their launch of a freshly-cracked eggs breakfast menu, Panera Bread is petitioning the FDA for a more precise definition of egg.

They’re implying that what other chains serve up as breakfast isn’t really an egg, but a breakfast shell game.

No doubt, Panera has hatched a great marketing scheme. But it’s unclear if the question of how fast food uses the word “egg” is actually helpful or if their challenge is legit.

FDA regulations do not define or set a standard of identity for eggs. In fact, the federal statute specifically says there shouldn’t be a regulation that does so.

Targeting Burger King, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts and Chick-fil-A, Panera claims that without an established definition, “companies can sell and advertise items that contain multiple additives, such as butter-type flavors, gums and added color, under the generic term “egg”” when those would be better called “egg product” or “egg patty.”

Panera calls out the “puffed scrambled egg patty” on Starbucks’ Sausage, Cheddar & Egg Breakfast Sandwich for containing sixteen ingredients: whole eggs, whey, skim milk, soybean oil, modified food starch, and less than two percent of the following: dicalcium phosphate, salt, sodium bicarbonate, butter flavor (sunflower oil, natural flavors, medium chain triglycerides and palm kernel oil), xanthan gum, guar gum, liquid pepper extract and citric acid.

Starbucks’ spongy commercially-made muffin-shaped omelet contains some milk and starch, salt, pepper and oil. More freakishly, the egg patty on Dunkin’ Donuts Bacon, Egg & Cheese Sandwich looks like an egg—with distinct white and yolk—and contains ten ingredients. How they do that?

Panera wants the word “eggs” only to refer to what they are now calling 100 percent real, cracked, made-to-order eggs.

As much as I like to know what is in my food, if Panera’s argument is that additional ingredients make eggs no longer “eggs,” I have to disagree. If I serve you scrambled eggs, you must know that they might include salt, pepper, a splash of milk, maybe some extra white or yolks, as well as oil from the cooking pan. That’s six ingredients right there. It’s still eggs.

Potentially, Panera’s strategy could backfire on all of us leading to a more inclusive definition of “egg.” After all, the FDA definition of “milk” allows milk to contain fruit, juice, natural and artificial flavorings.

Traditionally, the role of the FDA has not been to police restaurant menus. The FDA regulates package labeling and ingredient listing and takes action where they find-non-compliance and mislabeling, like in this warning letter to the Nashoba Brook Bakery addressing, among other violations, that the bakery cannot include “love” on their ingredient list.

One prominent exception is the restaurant labeling law. Signed by President Obama in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, the law requires restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calories and to make basic nutritional info available on request. They don’t have to publish their ingredient lists publicly, though some, like Panera, do.

The FDA does target restaurants regarding food safety. And food safety compliance is why Panera’s new “over easy” menu is interesting. The hype-worthy preparation technique that triggered this campaign involves pasteurizing eggs in the shell—heating them until potential bacteria are destroyed—allowing yolk to be served runny, yet safe and regulation-compliant.

The runny yolks are the real egg-citing development. Even though McDonald’s uses fresh eggs on their McMuffins (and rumor has it, McDonald’s will serve you a freshly-cooked egg on any Mc-breakfast-sandwich), the eggs are cooked hard and weirdly round, not drippy and soft and “eggy” like Panera’s. Panera’s real agenda isn’t safety. It’s capturing the imagination of the ideal egg.


I’ll be interested to see how the FDA, or McDonald’s for that matter, responds.