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
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
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.