Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salmonella: Which Eggs are Safe?

In the midst of a massive nationwide egg recall, I have had many people at the market say how glad they are to be buying eggs from pasture raised chickens so they can rest assured that these eggs are "safer" from salmonella than those of the large factory farms. I can assure you as an egg farmer of happy healthy pastured chickens that nothing could be farther from the truthIn fact, one of the safest methods of producing eggs would be to put a hen in a cage by herself with no bedding or access to other birds. Obviously this would be incredibly inhumane and impractical, much like keeping your child padlocked in her room for her entire life would most certainly keep her safest from sexual predators. At some point a person must weigh the cost of safety and security against a life well-lived.

Consumers are often lured into a false sense of security by equating the labels of "organic," "natural," "cage free" etc to safety. In all reality, the way a hen lives her life has very little to do with the presence or absence of salmonella. What does make a difference is the handling of the egg from nest box (or conveyor belt if in a huge battery cage McFarm) to your table. Responsibility is shared from farmer to processor to shipper to store to customer. Certainly the fewer the steps in between the farm and you can often give you the advantage, but an irresponsible farmer at the Farmers Market could just as easily sell you a carton full of salmonellosis. So here are a few steps from store (or market) to table you can take to do all that you can to insure the eggs you eat are safe.

  1. If at all possible, buy local from a local farmer. There are three big reasons this is a good idea. First, you can ask the farmer face-to-face what sort of safety practices they have in place. And if they can't give you a straight answer, WALK AWAY. Second, if (heaven forbid) there were a salmonella outbreak it would be smaller and more easily tracked and managed than with a multi-million egg recall covering nearly every state in the union.Third, farmers at markets tend to care about the people they feed and the critters and plants they do it with.
  2. Do not buy a carton with a cracked or broken egg in it. Never mix and match eggs from the store, and never allow a farmer at a market to make any switches between cartons to replace cracked eggs. The entire carton should be thrown out. 
  3. Do not let eggs get warm. Keep them refrigerated. Yes, it is true they do not do this in Europe, but in America all eggs must be washed in a bleach solution (50-100ppm in water) before they can be sold. In Tennessee it is illegal to sell eggs not washed in this manner, end of story. Any Tennessee farmer who brags that they only use organic or eco friendly wash or does not use bleach is breaking the law. It's a stupid law that I disagree with and I never do this for my own eggs, but I comply with the law with all eggs I take to the market. The washing method so stupidly insisted upon in Tennessee does help kill pathogens on the egg shell at the time of gather, but it also destroys the natural antibacterial protective membrane (bloom or cuticle) that covers the egg when it is laid by the hen. Without this protective layer the egg is now more susceptible contamination by pathogens. European countries do not use bleach egg washes and therefore have more confidence in not refrigerating their eggs. Side note: This is how I do things at home. I just knock any detritus off the shell and voila! Breakfast! I have been doing this every single morning for four years now and have never gotten ill from one of my eggs.
  4. If you wash your eggshells off before cooking, do so with hot water only. Heat causes the interior of an egg to swell, pushing pathogens out. Cold causes the interior of an egg to shrink, pulling contaminants in.
  5. Wash your hands immediately after cracking eggs open. Soap and hot water. It is extremely easy to contaminate your refrigerator or counter tops by "just putting a few things up first" before washing your hands. 
  6. Thoroughly wipe down your counters and anything else that may have come in contact with eggs while you were preparing the food.
  7. Cook eggs thoroughly. This means no sunny side up, no soft scrambling. Yolks must be solidly done, and scrambled eggs must have no liquid left. Never lick the cake batter or cookie dough, and kiss Mom's famous hollandaise goodbye. Or like me, accept that there is risk in life and enjoy it to the fullest!
What I do want to point out here is that there is no specific food we can avoid to protect ourselves from food-bourne pathogens. Anyone who follows the news of food recalls can see they are on the rise, and hello vegans, it's not just animal products. In fact it was organic spinach that caused the deadly e. coli outbreak of 2006. As of today there has been a salmonella outbreak in connection with the veggies used in some Northern Taco Bell restaurants. The answer is not to never again eat The answer is to change how our food is produced. Until the USDA and FDA have finally gotten back regulatory power no industrial food will ever be safe. Some of us believe that is the way things should be, that we should move permanently away from the huge industrial complex of factory farms and back to locally and sustainably produced agriculture. Don't take my word for it. Take a peek at the clip from Food Inc., my favorite documentary on the subject of food production. Clip.