Mention eggs and most people will automatically think of shell eggs in boxes on supermarket shelves.
This, as Noble Foods’ products division product development manager Therese Tolman explains, is because of the wide versatility of eggs.
Properties include being an excellent binder for holding ingredients together, acting as a glue attaching crumb coatings onto chicken and turkey, the ability to set (as with custards) and adding colour to pasta.
More widely known properties include its ability to emulsify oil and water which is essential for producing mayonnaise and the ability of egg whites to whip up into a foam, producing light meringues.
It’s therefore not surprising there is strong demand for egg products from across the whole UK food industry. But before we look at how eggs are processed, we need to first define what egg products are.
Egg products include liquid whole egg, egg white and yolk, hard boiled eggs, egg powder, egg mayonnaise, omelettes and scrambled egg – egg powder is not actually produced in the UK at present.
There are numerous UK egg processors operating in the UK but three companies are producing to Lion standards, Noble Foods, Framptons and Bumble Hole Foods. To see what the sector does, Poultry World visited Noble Foods’ plant near Edinburgh.
There has been a plant at Loanhead for over 40 years. Originally trading as HD Hardie, it was bought by Noble Foods (Deans Foods) in 1997.
The plant processes around 300 million eggs every year with the majority coming from intensive, free range and organic Lion code farms.
While some eggs come from dedicated flocks, many are by-products from the shell side. These include seconds, such as misshapen or those with hairline cracks plus surplus sizes, such as smalls.
Eggs are automatically broken and separated into yolk and whites by Pelbo breakers, which can each break 250 cases an hour.
As plant manager Gary Munro explains, the breaker works by holding the egg at both ends and then a knife pushes upwards, breaking the shell. The contents then fall into a cup which captures the yolk while the white drains through holes into a lower tray.
A clever part of the breaking process is the machine takes a picture of each cup and using computer technology, it rapidly identifies any egg white that has been contaminated by yolk. If detected, the white is diverted to the whole-egg stream, thus ensuring pure egg white.
The liquid whole egg, egg white and yolk are then filtered through a fine sieve to remove any shell fragments.
Egg is then pasteurised on the same day and the Loanhead plant has three separate pasteurisers, one for whole egg, one for white and the third for yolk. Pasteurisation involves heating it and holding it at a specific temperature for a fixed length of time to minimise the bacterial count.
One surprising thing highlighted by Noble Foods’ sales and marketing director Ian Jones is that only a small amount of liquid egg leaves the factory as whole egg.
Most goes through further processing into a bespoke blend for each food company. For example, sugar is added to egg white for meringues while other companies such as Yorkshire pudding and mayonnaise manufacturers require salted blends.
One benefit is that adding salt or sugar can extend shelf life, being a preservative. “In addition, it helps make life easier for our customers, as it is one less ingredient that they have to handle.”
It’s not just liquid egg, the plant also produces boiled egg and egg mayonnaise.
Eggs to be boiled enter a steam bath where they are held for the appropriate time and after cooling, they are mechanically peeled. Noble’s Edinburgh site is particularly proud of the peeling machine, as it was designed and developed in house.
Peeled eggs are then graded for size and quality, before being packed in catering tubs of 4 dozen through to 750 dozen. These cooked, whole eggs are then typically used by manufacturers making Scotch eggs or egg mayonnaise for sandwiches.
Any cooked eggs failing to make the grade, such as broken or small eggs, are then chopped or sliced, depending on the customer, and then made into egg mayonnaise.
Also at the plant is a giant scrambled egg maker, making half a million portions of scrambled egg a week. Alongside this is an equally massive omelette maker, which can make any shape omelette and can add herbs, cheese and mushrooms and other ingredients.
Scrambled eggs are used by caterers and in ready to eat fried rice, omelettes are used by hospital trusts and a major sandwich chain for breakfast rolls, while omelette strips are used in Marks & Spencer’s oriental rice.
So next time any one asks where they can buy your eggs, you can amaze them by listing all the foods and encourage them to think more about where their eggs come from.
The growth of egg products
Egg products account for more than one quarter of all eggs consumed in the UK, but some food manufacturers continue to use imported products.
It is now the second largest egg sector, having recently pushed catering into third place with retail shell eggs still way out in front at 47% of consumption.
But as vice-chairman of the British Egg Products Association and Noble Foods sales and marketing director Ian Jones points out, there is huge potential for egg products to grow.
“In the US, it accounts for 40% of total consumption and there is no reason why the UK market can’t account for a similar proportion.”
Free range is growing and about 20% of egg products in the UK are free range. Organic only accounts for 1-2%
The UK market equates to 3000 tonnes a week, with 2900 million eggs broken in the UK each year. However, British eggs only account for two-thirds, with one third being imported.
“There is still concern that many imported eggs are still being used,” said Mr Jones.
In a bid to boost the use of British egg products by food manufacturers, Lion processors are raising awareness of the food miles accumulated by imported egg products.
Lion processors have calculated that these imported eggs travelled more than 3.5 million miles last year, the equivalent of travelling to the moon and back more than eight times.
“The aim is to encourage consumers to make a choice. Why ship eggs products from Holland or Spain when the farm down the road is producing eggs. The UK is not short of capacity for producing egg products,” said Mr Jones.
Egg products are a rare example where the EU has not produced pages and pages of legislation. In fact EU rules are vague with no specific detail on how eggs should be processed.
It covers not just pasteurisation, also microbiology standards are much tougher.
The Lion scheme specifies a maximum enterobacteriaceae content of 10 cfu/g while the EU maximum is 10 times higher. It also has specified limits for salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus and listeria, which are not even mentioned in EU rules.
Mr Jones concluded by saying that by using Lion egg products, food manufacturers know they are getting a British product, backed by an exacting, independently audited code of practice.
Do you know how many Lion eggs you eat a day? One, two, more?
It could be more than you think when taking into account the huge array of products that contain eggs.
Obvious examples include Scotch eggs, quiches, meringues and pasta. But did you know that eggs can turn up in diverse products like breaded chicken strips, Muller Rice and coleslaw.
Here is a selection of products made using Lion egg products