A great little piece on eggs has been circulating in social media in the past few weeks, explaining why the US is one of the the only countries in the world that refrigerates eggs.
Refrigeration sounds like a smart thing as it slows down the growth of unwanted bacteria that may infect an egg. More specifically, salmonella bacteria are responsible for 150,000 reported illnesses every year in the US.
Two questions come to mind:
1. Why are there any cases of salmonella poisoning in eggs in the US?
2. Why don’t other countries refrigerate their eggs?
The answers may surprise you.
Let’s take a step back. Salmonella can infect eggs in one of two ways. Either the hen was infected with salmonella, or the egg came in contact with chicken feces that had the salmonella bacteria. The latter is by far the more prevalent in the US.
In order to minimize infection from feces, the US mandates eggs be washed. Not by consumers, but by the producers. An elaborate system has been set up to carefully wash and dry the eggs before they are packed and shipped off in refrigerated trucks to the supermarket. It’s quite cool, when you think about it. Billions of eggs need to be gently handled by machines in order not to break their delicate shells.
In Europe, eggs are not washed. We asked Oscar Garrison, Director of Food Safety at the United Egg Producers, representing 95% of America’s egg producers, if eggs in the are US that much dirtier than those in Europe that they require washing?
Garrsion: Eggs are not dirtier in the U.S. than in Europe, but the U.S. abides by different rules and regulations on how we handle and store eggs. Government regulations require that United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) -graded eggs be carefully washed and sanitized before being packed and packaged for the store.
That still doesn’t explain why Europeans don’t wash their eggs, and why they don’t require refrigeration. Europe in known for more consumer friendly regulations, and it sounds like clean, safe eggs would be an imperative. The answer may lie in the fact that European food agencies also abide by higher standards of animal husbandry. This means larger cages for hens, and in many countries, a substantial percentage of poultry raised in more roomy environs (think free range or similar). This means there is less chance a hen will lay an egg where she craps. So perhaps European eggs aren’t as dirty…
A marvel of nature you need to know about is the protective coat each egg receives as a parting gift from the mother hen. The cuticle is like a wax job that helps protect an egg from harmful bacteria. Unfortunately, studies have shown that washing an egg may harm the cuticle or reduce its efficacy. Garrsion does not concur:
It has been long believed that egg washing can deteriorate the cuticle, and in turn, reduce the shell’s ability to resist bacteria penetration. However, recent research suggests this is not the case. In the October 2011 publication of the Journal of Food Protection, researchers reject this perspective and report that the U.S. egg washing procedure does not affect the shell cuticle and supports evidence that washing can reduce the risk of bacteria entering the shell. In any case, the removal of the cuticle is not a concern in the United States due to the rapid turnover of eggs in the marketplace and a lack of long term storage.
In Europe, the approach is quite the opposite. European Union guidelines clearly state that washing the eggs “may favour trans-shell contamination with bacteria and moisture loss and thereby increase the risk to consumers.”
To summarize, European eggs are not refrigerated, not washed, and end up sickening less people than here. The US is more effective at producing low cost eggs, cleans the poop off, and requires refrigeration. Yet in 2010, half a billion eggs were recalled after potentially being tainted with salmonella.
If you are reading this and thinking of storing your eggs in the pantry instead of the fridge, think again. According to Garrsion: Maintaining a consistent, cool temperature is critical to safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires eggs to be refrigerated within 36 hours of lay, and stored under refrigeration throughout the supply chain. Once eggs are refrigerated, it is important to keep them that way. A cold egg left out at room temperature can sweat, facilitating the growth of bacteria that could contaminate the egg. Refrigerated eggs should not be left out more than two hours. In some countries where refrigeration is not readily available, eggs are often consumed a couple of weeks after they are laid without major health consequences, but this is not a preferred practice, particularly in countries in which refrigeration is prevalent.
Of course, if you buy your eggs directly from a farmer, and they have not been refrigerated, you can store them in room temperature as well.
Either way, eggs are a wonderful, nutrient dense food. Enjoy them thoroughly cooked and you’ll minimize your salmonella worries to nil.