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Perhaps it's just a matter of course that you wash your eggs before using them. Many Americans do. But did you know that in many areas of the world, they don't?
The Japanese, Australians and Scandinavians wash their eggs, too, either when they bring them home from the store and before refrigerating them, or just after taking them from the refrigerator and before cracking them into their skillets.
Some natural health advocates think this is the wrong way to handle freshly laid chicken eggs. The Prairie Homestead blogger says that at her house, they drink raw milk straight from the cow, eat unwashed veggies from their garden and raw eggs from their chickens.
"Some people aren't quite so, shall we say, accepting. And sometimes when you give people a carton of chicken eggs to take home that have bits of shavings and feathers stuck to them, it kinda grosses them out.
But no big deal, just give the eggs a good scrubbing and send them out the door. Right? Wrong."1
That may sound crazy to many people, but for centuries around the world, where there was little water and no hope of refrigeration, eggs were neither washed nor cooled.
To Americans, it doesn't seem logical that unwashed eggs would be safe to eat. The USDA agrees, and in 1970 began requiring egg producers in the U.S. to machine-wash their eggs.
But in many European countries, egg-washing is banned. Except for Japan, which experienced an egg-related salmonella outbreak in the 1990s, other Asian countries steer clear of the egg-washing routine as well.
Eggs have been gathered from the chickens and stored in a room-temperature pantry for years with no trouble. It's best to use washed eggs sooner than any that are unwashed.
It's important to know that when you bring eggs home from the refrigerated cooler at the grocery store, they need to be refrigerated again when you get home. Cold eggs brought to room temperature tend to sweat, which encourages bacterial growth.
On the other hand, eggs that are fresh from the farm and have an intact cuticle do not need to be refrigerated, as long as you are going to consume them within a relatively short period of time.
Eggs Are One of the Healthiest Foods on the Planet
Eggs are good for you. They're also relatively inexpensive, especially for the powerful nutrients they offer. Besides all the essential amino acids (which your body doesn't provide for you), eggs supply lots of protein, many beneficial vitamins and healthy — aka necessary — fats.
Best of all, the high protein is great for weight loss, and can potentially boost your metabolism by as much as 100 calories a day. Containing around 78 calories each, eggs are very filling.
Satiety Index studies reveal that for this reason, eating eggs earlier in the day cuts down on higher-calorie foods later, including late-night snacks.
Some have been told they should avoid eggs because they contain too much fat and raise your cholesterol, but that's incorrect. Good fats are desirable for a healthy diet. Rather than "raising" your cholesterol, eating the whole egg, yolk and all, offers nearly perfectly balanced nutrients.
Saturated fats like those in butter, dairy products, and coconut oil are actually fat fighters. To quote the Epoch Times:
"The key is to eat the right fats, in moderation.
Fats support healthy hormones, promote skin regeneration, reduce sugar cravings, keep you fuller for longer, burn (yes, I said burn) body fat, support brain health, boost energy levels and metabolism, protect your immune system, and optimize your health."2
Salmonella — Should We Worry About It?
When the "to refrigerate eggs or not to refrigerate" question arises, fear of salmonella poisoning usually ends any speculation for those who don't have all the facts about farm-fresh eggs.
Salmonella is commonly associated with undercooked CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) eggs or CAFO meat, but the bacteria can easily contaminate other foods it touches.
Egg contamination occurs either by the hen being infected with salmonella or the egg coming into contact with chicken feces containing the bacteria. Unfortunately, the latter is most prevalent in the U.S.
A U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report estimated in 2011 that around 450 Americans die of salmonella poisoning every year. This microorganism can cause gastroenteritis, precipitating loose stools, abdominal cramps and fever.
Most cases are virtually undetectable; in rare cases, it can be deadly, usually for people with weakened immune systems, infants and the elderly. Concerning incidents involving egg-borne salmonella poisoning throughout the world has changed traditional understanding in recent decades.
Outbreaks traced back to egg contamination have increased throughout the world since the late-1970s and mid-1980s, one review noted, mostly in the U.K., Australia and Denmark, but also in the U.S., Mexico, Italy and Japan.3
In 1988, the CDC noticed that a formerly dominant strain, S. typhimurium, was being replaced by the S. enteritidis strain.
When food poisoning in the northeastern U.S. increased five times over, most of the victims had eaten Grade A whole eggs, so the CDC identified eggs as the culprit. The Salmonella enteritidis strain:
" … [C]an infect a chicken's ovaries, contaminating a yolk before the shell firms up around it.
Cooking usually kills the bacteria before they can harm you; still, eggs contaminated with salmonella are responsible for about 142,000 illnesses a year in the U.S., according to the Food and Drug Administration."4
So Why Don't Europeans Wash Their Eggs?
U.K.-based World Poultry Science Journal published a lengthy paper not only explaining not only their reasons for prohibiting egg washing — but also implicating egg washing as the cause for the salmonella outbreaks:
"Current European Union legislation prohibits the washing of Class A eggs. This is in stark contrast to countries such as the United States of America and, more recently Japan, which have embraced egg-washing technology.
The emergence in the U.K. of egg associated Salmonella enteritidis as a significant cause of food poisoning has, combined with the increase in non-cage egg production systems, increased interest in technologies that might improve the microbial quality of the egg."5
The paper went on to discuss the departure from caged-layer egg production, implicating the "new" egg-washing trend in the rampant contamination problem.
According to Fooducate.com, EU directives state that washing eggs “may favour [sic] 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 U.S. 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."6
Don't Wash Off the 'Bloom!'
One little-known phenomenon in nature is the protective cuticle or "bloom" eggs are covered with when they're laid by their respective mother hens.
Similar to the wax job vehicles get after a car wash, this invisible coating on eggs keeps them from being porous and helps protect them from harmful bacteria. The Prairie Homestead explains:
"Bacteria has a hard time getting inside a dry egg. Washing dirty eggs removes the bloom and invites bacteria to be drawn inside the egg. And washing eggs in cool water actually creates a vacuum, pulling unwanted bacteria inside even faster."
That's especially true if there are hairline cracks in an egg, and water introduces pores they didn't have before, both of which increase the chances for bacterial contamination.
To ameliorate this, the drill in the U.S. is to place newly laid eggs straight into a machine for a soap and hot water "shampoo" (which, of course, washes away that undetectable safety jacket). They're then sprayed with bacteria-protective oil and refrigerated for good measure.
Clinical Studies — A Contrast
The Public Library of Science (PLSS) published a study on the topic under the premise that worldwide, S. Typhimurium is one of the most common bacteria in salmonella food-poisoning cases. Researchers examined the ability of five S. Typhimurium strains to penetrate both washed and unwashed eggs using whole egg and agar egg penetration methods.
Statistical analysis of the agar penetration experiment indicated that S. Typhimurium was able to penetrate washed eggs at a significantly higher rate when compared to unwashed eggs. When compared to unwashed eggs, washed eggs also had significantly damaged cuticles.7
A Belgium-based study began by noting that egg washing is currently not permitted in the European Union, with few exceptions, due to concerns that the process will damage the cuticle.
Researchers compared 400 eggs, some from older hens, which tend to lay eggs with "poorer" cuticle coverage and therefore constitute a greater risk for contamination. Under this "worst-case scenario," washed eggs were visually assessed and found to be undamaged by washing.8
Some European countries vaccinate their hens against salmonella. Although U.S. egg producers aren't required to follow suit, they do have to follow a litany of safety measures such as testing, pest control and refrigeration from the time they leave the farm to the time they reach the store.9
Essentially, the U.S. is with a few countries on one side of the divide while much of the world is on the other. At the end of the day, most scientific advisers for the poultry industry believe that whichever method works to keep salmonella contamination at bay, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. In reality, however, the problem with contamination can often be traced back to how the chickens are raised.
How Eggs (And Chickens) Are Raised — That Is the Question
The question begs to be asked: after all the egg-washing procedures, why are there any cases of salmonella poisoning in eggs in the U.S.? The answer may lie in the fact that in Europe, the animal husbandry standards are simply higher than those of the U.S.
Hen cages are large, and most are raised in much larger areas such as free-range pens, which means hens will most likely avoid laying eggs where they've relieved themselves.
Most large-scale poultry farms in the U.S. are CAFOs that measure around 490 feet by 45 feet, and can hold 30,000 chickens or more. Their typical diet consists of genetically engineered (GE) corn, soybeans and antibiotics, rather than their natural diet of seeds, insects, green plants and worms.
If you have your own laying hens, the Prairie Homestead blog suggests that the easiest way to keep eggs clean is to prevent them from getting dirty in the first place. But if they're visibly soiled he suggests:
- Cleaning hen-nesting boxes often and supply them with fresh wood shavings.
- Place roosting areas higher than the boxes, because chickens typically roost in the highest area of the coop they can find, which discourages them from roosting in and soiling the boxes where eggs are laid.
Still, dirty eggs do appear occasionally. The best cleaning methods are using:
- Fine sandpaper to gently rub off soiled areas, which keeps the egg dry.
- Warm or hot water that's at least 20 degrees warmer than the egg, which is important — the hotter the better. In the process, don't let them soak.
- Plain dish soap rather than anti-bacterial, bleach or "solutions" unless you run a commercial egg operation.
If you're purchasing eggs, locally raised are usually best. Ask the producer if they've been washed. Free-range, pastured eggs, ideally organic, are virtually always the best choice, and far less likely to be contaminated with salmonella or other contaminants.
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