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Buying Eggs -- Avoid the Egg Recalls and Salmonella Tainted Eggs

Updated on December 9, 2014

When the national egg recall hit the news, I breathed a sigh of relief. Two of my hens, MIFChick and Percher, had just started laying about two weeks ago and I was getting my own eggs. Still, there are enough people I know who don't have chickens but who still want to buy eggs and be certain as to the quality and safety of the eggs they buy. To understand what to buy, you must first understand why the recall has affected so many people.

The Dirty Truth

Eggs are a wonderful source of nutrition; however, they have some downfalls, largely due to our current food production system. Chickens naturally have bugs like salmonella and E. Coli that can be passed onto the eggs if the eggs aren't handled properly. Large factory farms keep chickens in small cages (called battery cages) and their eggs are usually collected via conveyor belt to egg washers, separators and graders. These chickens live a tough existence and after about a year or so are shipped off to be processed for their meat.

Porous Eggs

The problem with eggs can arise when the eggs are washed or subsequently handled. Eggs are naturally porous, but nature has given the hen an extra advantage to keeping her eggs fresh and bacteria free. When she lays an egg, her body produces a covering called the "bloom." It's sort of a natural shrink-wrap for eggs and helps keep harmful bacteria out of the egg so the chick inside has a fighting chance to develop. Eggs with blooms can stay good weeks or even months without refrigeration, although it's dubious I would want to eat eggs that have been left out a while and the USDA does not recommend it.

Eggs that are sold in stores have been washed and thus have had the blooms removed. This leaves the egg porous and able to absorb bacteria (like Salmonella) and other nasties. Thus, commercially harvested eggs are more susceptible to bacteria, especially if improperly handled. According to the USDA, Salmonella may exist already within the egg even before it is washed, which is why it is important to cook eggs.

When you use an egg that comes directly from the farm and has not been washed, you need to rinse it in lukewarm water and dry it right before use. That way you can be sure that you wash off any bacteria present.

Basic Problems Behind the Food Distribution System

The problem with the national egg recalls isn't the fact that there are Salmonella tainted eggs (although this is an issue) but the fact that the recall is national. When food is processed and distributed by a limited number of distribution points, it leaves single points of failure when something does happen. The reality is that no matter how careful people are, mistakes happen and bad stuff does slip through. The problem is that it slips through on a grand scale and affects everyone - not just a handful of people. This is why purchasing your eggs from a major chain isn't necessarily a good idea, unless that store is buying local eggs.

Free-Range versus Cage-Free versus Factory Eggs versus Pastured

There are a lot of terms tossed about nowadays when it comes to chickens. Factory eggs are the typical battery cage hens who have little movement and nowhere to go. Cage-Free means that the chickens are kept in pen rather than a battery cage, but doesn't tell you whether the chickens were housed humanely or packed in like sardines. The third, free-range, means that the chickens have access to the outside or may simply be put into an outdoor concrete run. Pastured means that the birds have access to grass and may or may not be kept in a portable outdoor chicken house (called a tractor). Of the four, pastured is generally considered to be the most humane, but is also the most costly option as it requires someone to build and move those tractors plus someone to gather those eggs.

Cage-free may or may not be acceptable. In my own coops, my birds are kept in a barn and separated by pens. They have roosts, nests and lots of floor space, but don't get access to the outside due to the huge number of predators nearby (mountain lions, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, wolves, eagles, hawks, raccoons, skunks and bears all frequent my area). I'm always bringing in grass clippings, dandelions and fresh vegetables and fruit for my birds. In factory cage-free farming, the conditions may or may not be humane.

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Purchasing Eggs

So, what do you buy if you don't want to hop over to the Big Agribusiness Store and purchase eggs? If you can, look for small farms that sell their eggs locally. Most people who keep chickens have more eggs than they can eat. Farm fresh eggs are some of the best eggs you'll ever taste. Don't know who sells eggs in your area? Go to the local farmer's market. If no one is selling eggs, one of the farmers can probably point you in the right direction.

When you purchase eggs ask if they have been washed. In most cases, you don't want washed eggs as it will reduce the shelf life and will make them more susceptible to bacteria. Sometimes you don't have a choice, but if you're dealing with the farmer directly, ask for him to set aside unwashed eggs that you can wash later as you use them.

If you don't have farmers or farmers markets in your area, look for eggs available through natural food suppliers or CSA coops. Ask where they get their eggs. You can find your nearest CSA here and join. And when another nationwide recall goes out, you'll be sitting pretty knowing that your eggs weren't affected.

It's important to note that any egg can be affected by bacteria and you can still get sick from farm eggs, but the chance of getting caught up in a national recall is virtually nil. If there is a salmonella outbreak, fewer people are affected and made sick. Because you're getting fresher eggs and knowing your farmer, you'll probably find that the farmer will care that his or her eggs are going to someone he or she knows rather than an anonymous face.

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