Buying Eggs From Your Local Farmer or Backyard Producer
By: Diane Wright Hirsch, Senior Extension Educator, UConn Extension
Having back yard chickens has become quite the trend. In Connecticut, many towns have instituted ordinances where none existed or where backyard farm animals were not previously allowed. In Hamden, for example, an ordinance was passed in 2010, allowing up to six chickens (but, alas, no roosters) in any residential zone. Now over 27 towns in Connecticut have backyard chicken ordinances. In addition, many small farms in Connecticut now raise chickens and produce eggs. At a little less than one egg per chicken per day, these farms and backyard chickens will produce thousands of eggs. And someone will need to eat them.
As a result, you are likely to see signs proclaiming eggs for sale as you drive along any country road. Your backyard chicken owning neighbor may also be looking to share or sell you a dozen or two.
Because the production or the selling (or giving away) of these eggs are not subject to any local or state government inspection program, it is really up to the consumer to ask questions and to know what they are buying.
If you purchase your eggs at a grocery or big box store, you are buying eggs that undergo federal and/or state inspection. If a producer has 3,000 hens or more, they must register with the FDA and comply with a 2010 FDA Egg Safety Rule that requires the development of a Salmonella Enteriditis Prevention Plan and refrigeration of eggs at 45 degrees F or less within 36 hours of laying. Government regulations require that USDA-graded eggs be carefully washed and sanitized using only compounds meeting FDA regulations for processing foods.
But many consumers are choosing to go buy local eggs. There may be some nutritional advantages: one study by Mother Earth News in 2005 showed that eggs from chickens allowed to roam “free” or “free range” are lower in cholesterol, higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fats than those from large commercial producers. Likely even more important to those who choose local is that the chickens are humanely treated and allowed to roam, eggs are very fresh, and considered tastier.
Are they safer? Well this is a question that is often debated. One potential problem is Salmonella. There are several types of Salmonella that have been associated with egg-borne food outbreaks, but most common is Salmonella Enteriditis (SE). Salmonella grows in the intestinal tracts of birds. Humans can get infected when they come into contact with chicken feces or manure, birds that have manure on them, coops, bedding or any part of the environment that may be contaminated with feces, or eggs that may have feces on the surface.
These bacteria can also infect the ovaries of a chicken. When this happens, the interior of the egg is contaminated before the egg is formed. Now that we know this, most public health agencies caution against eating raw eggs or foods such as homemade mayonnaise, egg nog, or any food containing uncooked or undercooked eggs. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 20,000 eggs are contaminated this way. So, truthfully the risk is rather small…unless you are very young, over 65 or have a compromised immune system.
The point is that you are probably not less likely to contract salmonellosis from eggs produced by a small, local or backyard farmer than from those large, well operated egg producing operations. Salmonella does not differentiate by farm size and, unfortunately, a chicken may show no signs or symptoms of illness when laying eggs that are either internally infected or coated with feces containing the bacteria.
If you buy your eggs from a farmers’ market, a neighbor with back yard chickens or a small farm, then it is up to you to make sure you are buying safe eggs.
What you should ask, observe and do when buying from a small producer
Is the place clean? Look around. If you are going to a farm, make sure that all looks well. The chickens are roaming, there are no signs of rodents or overwhelming smells or swarms of flies—indications that things might not be as clean as they should be.
Are the eggs clean? Do not buy eggs that are very dirty or if they are cracked or broken. At the very least, eggs should be dry brushed or cleaned. When laid, eggs are encased in a protective coating or bloom. This gelatinous coating protects the egg from bacteria and other contaminants. Once the coating is removed, as when eggs are washed, then the egg must be treated with extra care, they must be dried, stored in a clean carton (to minimize dehydration) and refrigerated at 45 degrees or below. Some farmers choose to wash, some do not, but in any event, avoid eggs with obvious dirt, remnants of bedding or feces on them. And be sure the cartons are clean. They can be reused, but must have no evidence of dirt, feces, or raw egg residue.
Are the eggs refrigerated? It is true that in many European countries, eggs are not sold refrigerated. Some, like Great Britain, require chickens to be vaccinated against Salmonella. This is not true in this country. And it does not really make sense to store eggs at room temperature for more than a few hours (producers are allowed to store at room temp for 36 hours after laying). First, it shortens the shelf life. Quality deteriorates rapidly, the white thins, and there are fewer barriers to bacteria. If bacteria are already in the egg (or simply on the surface), they will multiply quickly at room temperature, increasing the chance of illness or cross-contamination.
Eggs sold directly to consumers in Connecticut must be in cartons that are labeled with the farm name and address, and the safe handling statement:
SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
Eggs must also be refrigerated at 45 degrees or less.
When you get your farm-fresh eggs home
Even if a farmer tells you that you do not need to refrigerate the eggs, it still is prudent to do so (unless you plan to eat them that day, perhaps). Keep them in the original carton. If there is any dirt or feces present, and you choose to wash the eggs, allow them to come to room temperature and wash with warm (about 90 degrees F) water. Too cold water may actually cause shrinkage of the egg membrane, and result in dirt or bacteria from the surface of the egg being drawn in through the now coating-free pores. Dry them well before storing in the carton. While commercial eggs, due to the processes used to wash and sometimes to coat the eggs, have a fairly long shelf life of as many as 6 weeks from the date on the carton, use your farm fresh eggs up within 3-4 weeks for best quality and safety.
For more information on growing and the safe handling of farm fresh eggs, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.