When I recently visited my daughter, who is attending graduate student in Scotland, I was surprised to see eggs out on store shelves far away from a refrigerator. In fact, in one store, the eggs were stored neatly beside a display of potato chips and other snack foods.
After feeling a bit squeamish, I decided to find out what was going on. I discovered that leaving eggs out in room temperature conditions is the norm in most of the world. In fact, Americans, Japanese, Australians and Scandinavians are the only people who store their eggs in the fridge.
So do we need to refrigerate eggs or don’t we? The answer has to do with how eggs are handled from the moment they appear in the nest.
Since 1970, American egg producers have followed United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines by washing eggs immediately. We even have machines designed expressly for that purpose. What does washing have to do with refrigeration? Everything, it seems.
The washing process cleans the eggs of any bacteria, including dangerous salmonella, which can be on the shell. However, the process also compromises the shelf life of the egg by washing away a natural coating – called the cuticle — that keeps water and oxygen inside the egg and prevents outside dirt and bacteria from getting inside the eggs through pores or tiny cracks in the shell.
Factory eggs are coated with a thin layer of oil in the U.S. to offer some protection from contaminants, but it is imperfect. In other words, once you have washed eggs, you need to refrigerate them from farm to store to keep them safe for consumption.
A plus for refrigerated eggs is that consistent refrigeration more than doubles an egg’s shelf life. While unwashed, unrefrigerated eggs are fresh for about 21 days, eggs that are washed and refrigerated can stay fresh for up to 50 days.
A negative aspect of refrigerated eggs is the space they take up in the refrigerator and the cost of washing and refrigeration itself.
What about if you harvest your own eggs on your homestead? Should you refrigerate or not? Many people are divided on this issue. Here are some factors to keep in mind to help you make the right decision for your family.
Safety. Although cooking eggs usually kills bacteria before they can harm you, we are right to be concerned about salmonella. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), eggs contaminated with salmonella are responsible for more than 140,000 illnesses each year in the U.S.
Salmonella poisoning causes symptoms like diarrhea, cramps and vomiting.
Salmonella can infect eggs in two ways. First, the germs can be passed on from an infected hen to the inside of her egg as it is forming. Second, salmonella can get onto the outside of the shell from the hen’s feces after she lays the egg.
Some countries in Europe vaccinate their chickens against salmonella, which can infect a hen’s ovaries, but the FDA does not require vaccination in the U.S. Instead, the USDA requires that its “graded” eggs be washed and then sprayed with a chemical sanitizer before they are shipped to stores.
If your chickens do not have salmonella, your eggs are safe without washing. You can store them unrefrigerated for a short period as long as you do not wash off the protective coating. You may wish to wash them just before you use them.
Freshness. Although some people keep their eggs out on the counter for weeks without any incident, others try to make sure they eat them within a week to be on the safe side. How do you store eggs in such a way that you know which eggs are today’s and which are last week’s?
One way is to stack egg cartons that are marked with the date. Another way is with a spiral countertop holder that is designed so that the oldest eggs are on top and easy to distinguish.
Of course, if someone in your family has an immune disorder or another condition that may compromise his or her health, it is probably not worth the risk to store unwashed eggs on your kitchen counter.
And, while we are on the subject, do not leave washed, refrigerated eggs out on the counter for more than two hours, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines. A cold egg that is left out at room temperature can sweat, causing the potential for bacterial growth.
Taste: There is a large segment of backyard chicken owners who say unrefrigerated eggs simply taste better. There’s even a world famous chef – Raymond Blanc – who doesn’t like refrigerated eggs for this very reason. “People have got into the habit of refrigerating absolutely everything when often there is no need,” he said.
What about you? Where do you stand on this issue? Share your thoughts in the section below: