Do you own chickens? Our poultry care video series with retired Extension Educator Dr. Mike Darre can answer your questions. There are 10 videos, topic include: how to hold your birds, how to inspect your birds, determining if your chicken is a good layer, watering systems, nest boxes, feeding, housing and heating, bird litter, housing, and the egg cleaning and quality check. You can watch the entire series on our YouTube channel.
Spring is here (at least officially) and it is always a good time to remind ourselves of how to safely handle eggs. Whether you are hard-boiling them for an Easter or Passover celebration, or looking forward to serving deviled eggs at your family picnic, it is important to follow food safety guidelines.
It wasn’t all that long ago that we thought that uncracked eggs were essentially sterile (inside the egg). But, numerous foodborne disease outbreaks that were sourced back to eggs in the 1970s and 1980s sounded an alarm bell. Maybe the problem was actually Salmonella (a pathogen commonly associated with eggs) IN the egg, not only on the surface of the eggshell. The implications of this new thinking would have a great impact on how eggs are handled by the foodservice industry. If the Salmonella was in the egg, then simply cleaning the shell surface would not reduce the risk of illness from egg-containing menu items such as eggnog, soft-boiled eggs, some custards and other raw or partially cooked egg-containing foods.
Salmonella enteritidis (SE) is a common illness causing strain of this pathogen. It is often associated with eggs. From 1998-2008, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded that 60.3% of all SE outbreaks were traced to eggs as the source.
How does SE get into the egg?
There are potentially two ways for this pathogen to get into an egg. First, since Salmonella is an intestinal pathogen, chicken manure can be one source of the problem. Chicken pass eggs through the vent—the same way they poop out waste. Therefore, it is easy for chicken manure to some in contact with the surface of an egg. This can happen as the egg is laid, or if the egg comes into contact with the manure after it is laid, or rodent feces in the barn, or from other contaminated places in the farm environment.
Fresh shell eggs are protected by the “bloom” or “cuticle”, a gelatinous covering that dries after the egg is laid and helps to seal the pores in the egg shell. This is a natural covering that keeps moisture in and helps to keep bacteria out. Some customers may ask for unwashed eggs, thinking that this will mean a safer egg.
Commercially, eggs are often washed and/or sanitized prior to sale. Careful handling and refrigeration of eggs after washing helps to insure against cross contamination and the risk of pathogen growth.
A bigger problem, that is less amenable to environmental controls occurs when a hen’s ovaries for infected with SE. An infected chicken may look completely healthy—and so will her eggs.
Rules and regulations
A Federal Egg Safety rule went into effect in July 2010. Many provisions of the rule were aimed at reducing the risk for Salmonella infected birds. They also addressed environmental controls to minimize the pathogen in the hen house. Each operation must register with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have a written SE Prevention Plan.
Some provisions of the rule address the monitoring and reduction of SE during the raising of pullets, or young hens. Other provisions address biosecurity, control of rodents and other pests, environmental sampling and testing, cleaning and disinfection of the hen house, egg sampling and testing, and refrigeration. Eggs must be held and transported at or below 45°F beginning 36 hours after laying.
The rule also exempts any operation with fewer than 3,000 laying hens and any farmer who sells all of his/her eggs directly to the consumer. These operations do not need to register with FDA, develop a prevention plan or keep records of cleaning or sanitizing operations.
No matter where you buy your eggs—from the farm or the supermarket, make sure that the eggs are refrigerated, clean and uncracked when you buy them. Be sure to refrigerate the eggs quickly after purchase. And, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
Safe handling of eggs
It is important to handle eggs safely to prevent illness.
When buying eggs, buy shell eggs only when sold from a refrigerator or refrigerated case. In Connecticut supermarkets, eggs must be held at temperatures no lower than 45°F. Open the carton, and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.
Check “sell-buy” dates so that you are getting the freshest eggs. Sell-by dates are an indication to store owners when to pull the product from the shelves. This does not mean that the food is no longer safe to be consumed. Eggs are safe to eat when stored properly up to 4-5 weeks after the sell by date.
If you choose to buy pasteurized eggs or an egg substitute product (usually found in a cardboard carton) made from egg whites, be sure that the product is sold from a refrigerated or freezer case. Check “sell-buy” dates for the freshest product.
Store eggs in the original carton, and refrigerate as soon as possible after purchase. Be sure that the temperature in your refrigerator is 40°F or below. Eggs are washed and sanitized before they are packed. Eggs should not be washed before storage because you may remove the natural coating on the shell that protects the egg.
When handling or preparing eggs
When preparing eggs, keep in mind that there is always a chance that they could be contaminated with bacteria. Wash your hands and all utensils, counters and cutting boards with hot water and soap before and after preparing eggs. Do not prepare raw eggs near ready-to-eat foods like salads, cooked meat or fish, bread, rolls or fresh fruit.
Use only clean, unbroken eggs. Discard dirty or broken eggs.
Cold temperatures will reduce the chance that bacteria will multiply, so keep shell eggs, broken-out eggs or egg mixtures refrigerated before and after cooking.
Do not leave eggs in any form at room temperature for more than two hours including preparation time and serving.
For picnics or outdoor parties, pack egg dishes with ice or a freezer gel pack in an insulated cooler or bag.
To prevent the contamination of other foods with the bacteria found in raw eggs, wash your hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after using eggs or making egg-containing foods to prevent cross-contamination.
To keep prepared egg dishes safe, refrigerate leftovers in shallow containers immediately after serving so that they will cool quickly. Use leftovers within two days.
When eggs are fully cooked, bacteria, such as Salmonella, will be killed. When you cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm, you can be sure that they are safe. When eggs are the ingredients in fully cooked baked goods, you may also be sure that the bacteria have been killed. However, when eggs are ingredients in casseroles, quiches, sauces or custards, it is best to use a thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to at least 160°F.
If you like to eat eggs that are not cooked to this high temperature or if you are serving folks with compromised immune systems, you might want to consider using pasteurized egg products, often found in the dairy section or egg section of your market in a carton similar to a milk carton.
Hardboiled egg safety
Once eggs are cooked, they need to be refrigerated immediately if they are not to be eaten. For some reason, people thing that this is not true of hardboiled eggs…that somehow the shell will protect them from contamination and bacterial growth. Safe cooking and handling of hardboiled eggs includes the following steps:
Cook hard boiled eggs thoroughly. Cool quickly under cold running water or ice water, then refrigerate.
Keep in mind that once an egg is hard-cooked, the protective coating is washed away. This leaves open pores – and an entry point for bacteria.
Keep hard-cooked eggs in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If you are decorating your hard cooked eggs or using them for holiday activities, they should not be out of refrigeration for more than a total of 2 hours. That includes all time spent at room temperature once the egg is cooked—whether cooling, decorating, or using as a centerpiece. If hard cooked eggs are out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours (or even less time if it is over 70° F), then they must be thrown out.
Eat hard cooked eggs within 5 days or so.
For more information about egg safety, go to the US Food and Drug Administration web site at www.fda.gov, the US Department of Agriculture web site at www.fsis.usda.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-627.
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.