Why Must We Refrigerate Eggs While Europe Doesn’t?

Unrefrigerated eggs sold in Paris

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.

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  • Ben

    Europeans *hate* refrigerating things. Their milk is not refrigerated (comes in boxes, tastes awful), their eggs sit nice and warm on the shelf, they drink their water warm, without ice. It’s like an alternate universe over there. Bought an apple at a street produce stand once (Amsterdam) and asked the vendor if he had something I could wash it with. He did not understand why I would want to wash it – it’s not dirty, he said. Imagine buying an apple in the U.S. and not washing it, complete sacrilege.

    • Alberto

      I am sorry but you no have idea what is good. All Europe products is much better and taste better than US.

    • Derek

      “Alternate universe over there”….imagine what they think looking at us here in America, with the most $ spent on health care, and some of the worst health in the world as a nation. I just wonder if they are doing something right….or many things for that matter.

      I’ve got to agree with Alberto, hands down.

    • Nan Thompson

      Euopeans don’t “hate” refrigerating things. They just know it isn’t necessary all the time.

      UHT milk isn’t refrigerated because of the way it has been treated – it is able to keep for a long time but must be put in the fridge once opened. You’re right, it does taste nasty, and I only ever use it when I am out and about and it is the only thing available for my tea. However, if you look over in the fridge case you will find a whole range of milk that has not been treated. That’s what the majority of people drink.

      Why would fruit need to be washed if it hasn’t been sprayed with a boatload of chemicals?

      • J T

        You can’t really wash off the chemicals, so that’s not what washing is for. It’s to clean off the germs from the dozens of people before you who may have handled that apple in the store before you got to it. How many of those people were just picking their nose, or scratching their bum, or picking at an open sore? Then, without washing their hands, they touch that apple you’re about to eat.

    • Simba

      Europe is not one monolithic place. It’s 28 different countries with different languages and cultures.
      Milk will taste different depending on what country you’re in, and processing and storage of milk will change in different countries too. French milk tastes completely different to Irish milk, for example- apples and oranges.
      Same goes for produce, iced vs tepid water, anything. People from Italy get culture shock when they go shopping in Poland, and find completely and utterly different groceries.
      It’s not one culture in the (broad) sense the U.S. is.

  • http://www.supermom101.com/ SuperMom101

    As always – terrific post! The 1/2 billion egg recall in the States says it all…meanwhile, America (and her children) have never been fatter or sicker and we can’t seem to figure out why.

    Before I had cancer I used to shop “quantity” and now I focus on the “quality” of the food.

    p.s. Although I always did find it strange to food shop at that same store that sells automobile tires.

  • Carol H

    When I worked in US restaurants we never refrigerated eggs. Mostly because they were used within a week or less, but also if they aren’t cracked (allowing bacteria to enter the egg) they are pretty safe. This has nothing to do with what country you’re in.

  • Ron Erskine

    Until I moved to Hawaii and bought my fruit & veggies at the local farmer’s markets, I didn’t know how good a potato or mango could be. Now that I’m back on the Mainland, everything I take home from grocery stores has the flavor of recycled cardboard.

  • SJ

    I really believe that in the US, the reason we hear of more recalls of eggs, dairy, meat, etc., is because of the greed of mass producing and little in the health quality standards.

  • http://www.visin.com/ Thomas Townsend

    I served in the Submarine Service in the 80′s. We often did 90 to 105 day Patrols…not a lot of room on Subs back then….even on a Polaris Missile Boat. Our eggs came in huge cardboard crates and were stored in the Forward Torpedo Room Bilges….IE NOT REFRIGERATED. No one EVER got sick from them that I can recall. Eggs would last for about the first 60 days…..and they did get a few green ones. As they got down to the last few ……we would then switch over to Powdered…YUCK…

    • birdgray

      Thank you for your service! I would agree powdered eggs are yukky