Regardless of labeling—NOT all eggs are created equal. In the U.S. alone, 75 billion eggs per year from about 280 million birds are consumed. Eggs from truly organic farms and free-range chickens are FAR less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella…AND…nutrient content is MUCH higher than commercially-raised eggs—even if raised organically in a commercial farm.
In most states the law makes organic eggs illegal, unless ALL eggs sold commercially are processed with non-damaging methods. Some states go as far as requiring ALL eggs receive a bath with chlorine and mineral oil before they are nestled into their cozy cartons.The Journey of an Egg—Why It’s Important
Egg journeys are important because commercial processing regularly destroys the eggs’ protective cuticle…AND…it’s industry practice to wash chicken eggs.
Depending on washing method, the cuticle is easily damaged—leaving eggs vulnerable to contamination and faster spoilage. The egg industry knows this, so to replace what Mother Nature put there for good reason, they must coat the egg with something—often mineral oil—akin to adding preservatives to processed foods.
Not only is mineral oil a non-natural agent—it’s a petroleum product that was never intended for you to eat. Health and environmentally-conscious egg producers use vegetable oil as a natural alternative.
For you gourmet cooks, using eggs whose shells were oiled prevents those “stiff peaks” because some oil will seep into the egg white—just like what you apply to your skin seeps into your body, what’s put ON the egg goes INTO the egg! Not all eggs undergo oiling, but many larger producers do, particularly if they are preparing their eggs for long-distance shipment and/or storage. I could find no statistic about what percentage of eggs are cleaned in a way that their cuticle has been wiped out, but I suspect it’s high.
Organic Eggs—A Bath of Chlorine and Rinse of Lye?
According to A Guide to On-Farm Processing for Organic Producers: Detergents and other chemicals used for “wet cleaning” eggs must either be non-synthetic or among the allowed synthetics on the National List of allowed nonagricultural substances (205.603 of the National Organic Standard).
Here’s a “Taste” of Synthetics Allowed!
- Chlorine (sodium hypochlorate)
- Potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide (lye)
- Sodium carbonate
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Peracetic acid (peroxyacetic acid)—mixture of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide
NOTE: These agents serve mostly as sanitizers, rather than washing agents.
Chlorine can interact with organic materials to form highly toxic compounds called DBPs (Disinfection By-products), which can be carcinogenic and mutagenic. Eggs are an “organic material,” which bears the question, “What chemical interactions are occurring in a chlorinated egg that have yet to be discovered?”
Instead of harsh chemicals, the guide cited above recommends cleaning eggs with plain vinegar (mixed with three parts water) because it’s non-synthetic and effective at removing bacteria and stains on eggshells (natural stains some people find objectionable).
Mineral oil is NOT listed in the National List of allowed substances. I think it unlikely an organic farmer would use mineral oil, but regulations are so variable state to state, and national guidelines so nebulous, there’s a lot of wiggle room. If the water is too cold relative to the egg, the egg can literally “suck in” the washing solution—along with the bacteria in it. Water exposure should be as brief as possible to minimize potential contamination, and eggs dried immediately.
Dry-skin Brushing for Eggs
Some farmers rinse eggs quickly in water, just to dislodge any debris, and believe this is adequate. Others use a dry brushing process—no liquids at all—just a brush, gentle fine sandpaper, or a loofah sponge. This dry brushing technique is highly recommended for small producers.
A Scrambled Mess
There are different federal and state regulations for egg farmers, depending on the intended use of the eggs.
Eggs that are going to be used in egg products (i.e., those cracked and emptied) are subjected to one set of regulations, eggs sold as “table eggs” or “shell eggs,” sold whole “in the shell,” are subject to another set of regulations.
State Regulations, in Addition to Federal Regulations
In 1970, Congress passed the Egg Products Inspection Act (administered by the USDA) to ensure eggs and egg products are safe for consumption. This act imposes specific inspection requirements for both shell eggs and egg products for anyone who sells eggs to retailers (grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, etc.).
In 1972, on-site inspections of all shell egg producers became required quarterly. However, here’s the hiccup; any producer with a flock of less than 3,000 birds is EXEMPT from this act—this doesn’t make healthy sense to me, does it to you?
Every state has its own specific egg laws—making it more complicated to figure out what process your eggs have gone through. Although the USDA does not allow immersion washing (allowing eggs to soak in water), most small producers are not subject to those restrictions. And, most state egg laws do not specify washing methods.Egg Cleaners and Sanitizers
According to the USDA’s publication Guidance for Shell Egg Cleaners and Sanitizers:
“Compounds used to wash and remove stains from shell eggs are potential food additives. Regulated by the FDA, they do not have published regulations dealing with shell egg cleaning and compounds for removing stains.” Leaves it wide open, doesn’t it?
Refrigerate or Not?
Despite what you’ve heard, fresh eggs with an intact cuticle do not need to be refrigerated, as long as they’re cool and consumed within about seven days. In other countries, including Europe, eggs are frequently not refrigerated.
According to Hilary Thesmar, director of the American Egg Board’s Egg Safety Center, “The bottom line is shelf life. The shelf life for an unrefrigerated egg is seven to ten days, for refrigerated, 30 to 45 days. A good rule of thumb is one day at room temperature is equal to one week under refrigeration.” Eggs purchased from grocery stores are typically already three weeks old, or older. USDA certified eggs must have a pack and a sell-by date on the carton. NOTE: The eggs were often laid many days prior to the pack date.
How Can You Guarantee Clean, Fresh Eggs?
So, how can you tell if your eggs have been washed in chlorine or lye, or in some other chemical, or coated with mineral oil? You certainly can’t tell by looking at them.
The only way to know if your eggs have been washed or oiled (and with what agents) is to ask the producer—the only way to do that is to buy from small local farmers you can ask. It’s important to know where your food comes from—if you don’t ask, they won’t tell you.
The key here is to buy eggs locally, which is what I do. Farmers markets are a great way to meet the producers—faceto- face contact, what a novel idea! Better yet, visit the farm—ask for a tour. If you have children or grandchildren and they’ve never toured a chicken farm, now’s the time; it’s quite the educational venture. If the farmer has nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.
Remember, clean and happy chickens lead to healthy eggs.