A High-Tech Defense Against Bad Eggs

Available now at a grocery store near you: eggs with serial numbers. A Massachusetts company etches tracking info on eggs in a bid to ease fears of food-supply terrorism and food poisoning.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Consumers of eggs in nine Northeastern states now have a new choice. A company near Boston has become the first in the nation to laser etch the shell of nearly every egg it sells. Hillary McQuilkin(ph) has more.

HILLARY McQUILKIN reporting:

It sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie: laser-etched eggs. But that's exactly what Born Free of Watertown, Massachusetts, is doing. In addition to the expiration date and brand name, the shells are etched with a long alphanumerical code which allows people to track each egg back to the farm, even to the flock of chickens where it originated. David Radlo is CEO of Radlo Foods, the company behind the Born Free label. He says they conducted focus groups in many different states.

Mr. DAVID RADLO (CEO, Radlo Foods): It's really a blue state/red state phenomena here.

McQUILKIN: Radlo says in the blue states...

Mr. RADLO: They want to have the quality assurance that, if they buy a cage-free egg, they're getting a cage-free egg. Or if they buy an organic egg, they're getting an organic egg. Where the people from the red states are really interested in the fact that this will help protect my security by knowing this traceability code.

McQUILKIN: Since September 11th, federal officials have expressed concern that eggs and other agricultural products are vulnerable to agroterrorism.

Mr. RADLO: And we've decided to say, `We're not going to wait for a mandate. We're not going to wait for FDA or HHS or Homeland Security, or USDA to say, "You have to do this."'

(Soundbite of grocery store loudspeaker system)

Unidentified Woman: Deli department, you have a call on line one. Deli department...

McQUILKIN: At a Market Basket grocery store just outside of Boston and Woburn, Alex Ma(ph) is skeptical.

Mr. ALEX MA (Shopper): It might be just a kind of a gimmick where they try to attract more customers, but in the end, maybe, it's not that helpful.

McQUILKIN: Sara Ferrara(ph) of Redding has purchased Born Free eggs before, in part because of the laser-etched expiration date.

(Soundbite of grocery store sounds)

Ms. SARA FERRARA (Shopper): I kind of like that it was right on the egg. Probably paying more for that.

McQUILKIN: Born Free eggs do cost more, $2.19 per dozen at the Market Basket compared to $1.29 for store brand eggs. But it's not because of the laser etching. It's because they're so-called `designer eggs': organic, cage-free, vegetarian-fed or omega-3 enhanced.

Linda Braun, director of consumer services for the American Egg Board, says designer eggs make up only 5 percent of the national egg market. When it comes to a traceability code, Braun says she hasn't noticed any interest.

Ms. LINDA BRAUN (Director of Consumer Services, American Egg Board): If and when there is an outbreak of some type of food-borne disease, then it might become important.

McQUILKIN: The laser-etched Born Free eggs are being test marketed in more than 1,000 retail locations in the Northeast. For NPR News, I'm Hillary McQuilkin.

HANSEN: It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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