And, goodness, we’ve been asked this question a lot in the last two weeks at the local markets. In Europe, eggs are rarely refrigerated. In the US, it’s mandatory. We’ve also gotten lots of questions about egg production in general, and how long eggs will keep. Here’s some background information on eating healthy eggs that may be helpful!
1) What are the chickens eating? Do you care about organic and/or non-GMO feed? Is the forage area clean?
There is increasing evidence that GMO food technology may be harmful to our health, and 98% of the corn, a staple of chicken feed, commerically produced in the US is GMO. The World Health Organization has declared the pesticide primarily used with GMOs a probable carcinogen; Russia has banned all GMOs; Europe requires labeling. Even Pope Francis has recently expressed concern about GMO Impact on human health. So what poultry are fed is an important question. Producers should be able to demonstrate that they are feeding a non-gmo or certified organic feed—or have certification to back up their assurance.
If chickens forage, that is great, but also ask what they are foraging on. Was the property sprayed with pesticides, or was sludge applied (bringing with it heavy metals?) Again, a farm that is certified to be free of pesticides has gone through a review process. If the farm hasn’t, ask to visit. Ask how pesticides are managed. Ask about sludge aka “bio-solids.”. Does the farm use “bio-solids?” Sludge is the application of municipal waste. I recently looked at a copy of a sludge permit form–because of the heavy metal content (not to mention all the pharmaceuticals that get flushed down the drain), farms that apply bio-solids aren’t supposed to grow certain things, as some plants can take in toxic levels of heavy metals. However, what’s grazed on land that has had sludge applied has very little regulation. It’s a common practice. Sustainable farms concerned about healthy food avoid it like the plague.
2) How are the eggs handled?
Eggs have a bloom which if not washed off, will provide a protective barrier for the eggshell. Eggshells are porous. Here we keep the eggs in a cool place out of direct sunlight immediately after gathering and inspect and pack eggs daily. We move our eggs quickly so eggs for market are one-two days old and are stored in a cool room. Eggs for retail stores and restaurants are refrigerated.
Once eggs are refrigerated, they should stay refrigerated. Since we get asked this question about refrigeration a lot, here’s a brief overview of history behind differences between European and American egg producers.
In Europe, there isn’t as much focus on the cleanliness of the eggs. In the US, that cleanliness is a must—and for farms subject to USDA inspection, washing and refrigeration is mandatory. Producers who don’t follow the rules can be shut down. European shoppers also shop differently from the US; they shop for only a day or two of food at a time. US shoppers usually buy a week of food, or more.
But back to the systems. Both work. The European system doesn’t wash and leaves eggs non-refrigerated, albeit usually in a cool place. The US system washes and refrigerates. Either way has a good safety history. Either way leaves the flavor intact. (I did a blind test on my farm intern. He could not tell the difference between refrigerated eggs and non-refrigerated eggs.) One benefit to refrigeration is that un-refrigerated eggs have a shelf life of 21 days while refrigerated eggs have a shelf life of 50 days.
Unlike most producers in the US, here our eggs are free-range and the health of our flock is better, usually better than birds in any type of containment system (unless they get eaten by predators). We go out of our way to ensure a healthy, non-gmo, pesticide-free grain to augment what they get from forage. And when we pull up weeds like morning glories from the garden, guess what the chickens get to eat?
Production cleanliness goes beyond just having clean straw in the hen house. Management of livestock requires thought and understanding of all aspects of their environment, including exposure to toxins that might be on the farm. What chickens eat is extremely important for health concern. Another question to ask if birds are being fed medicated feed. That will add antibiotics to the eggs. We don’t feed it, but medicated feed is a staple in area feed stores. Another question to ask is if the birds are managed by the producer from day 1 of life, or if they are buying pullets at 3 or 4 months of age, and didn’t control the earlier production. Many people buy pullets and then shift to organic practices but the birds will still retain the toxins from earlier exposure.
We manage our birds—all of them—from day 1 of life. We buy from only one supplier to ensure good health from the start.
Producers who get certifications have their operations inspected and visited. In 2014/2015, we had two, Project Non-GMO for the poultry, which included development of an SOP and a months –long review process, examining how the birds are managed from day 1. We also have Certified Naturally Grown, which means we’ve had a review for how the entire farm is managed so that it is managed to support organic, not conventional processes. [Update: For 2016, we’re transitioning the flock to a non-gmo, non-soy supplemental feed and hope to have the eggs Certified Naturally Grown by the end of the years, but the flock will need to be on certified organic grains for 9 months for the certification. ]
3) What’s the difference between pastured and free-range and conventional eggs?
There is a big difference. Pastured eggs come from hens that are kept penned up or fenced in a small area and moved around the pasture, so that they can eat the grass. They do not free range. Free-range birds are exactly that. The hen house door is opened in the morning, and they go out and forage all day, eating bugs and grass and tasty weeds. Free-range and pastured flocks are generally healthier. Most producers don’t do free-range because of the additional management required to address predation. (A loss of 10-15% to predators is not unusual but many farmers find a livestock guardian dog a good solution.)
Here both pastured and free-range have been tried and the decision was to stay with free-range, because of the improved quality of the egg. Our yolks are a good flavor and good color because our free-range birds, unlike pastured, get a more diverse diet. They go where they choose and aren’t confined to just grass. We also find that holistic flock management helps with egg quality, too. Conventional poultry methods keep the birds in cages or in a large house. That’s not as sanitary as either free-range or pastured, and the eggs don’t have the richness of flavor of either free-range or pastured.
Keep in mind that some of the eggs certified organic in the grocery store, or that advertise “cage-free” birds may only allow the birds 1-2 square feet of space, keeping them in a contained area. Organic egg production rules don’t necessarily keep in mind the quality of life for the bird.
4) Why does the USDA mandate washing and refrigeration?
Around the turn of the century, egg producers in the Midwest sent un-refrigerated eggs that were 3 or 4 weeks old into the big urban centers like NYC—without automobiles, shipping took more time then. By the time eggs got to the consumers, they were already at least month old and subject to all sorts of conditions. On several occasions, very serious outbreaks of Salmonella occurred, and quite a few people died. This was one of several food safety concerns at the time. The US government stepped in, mandating washing and refrigeration.
5) Keep in mind that local may not equal organic or sustainable.
A good number of large area farms that are not certified organic or Certified Naturally Grown use sludge and synthetic herbicides, and for dairy, growth hormones. Just because food is produced locally does not mean that the production practices are toxin free. Asking about production practices is important. Don’t fall for the “we get our grain from the Amish” line.
Back to the topic of healthy eggs!
Understanding that how eggs are managed affects their shelf life is important. If you want to have eggs un-refrigerated, it’s best to use them within 21 days from their laying date.
Otherwise, refrigeration is recommended.