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Op-Ed: The case for the not-quite-pristine egg

Eggs are inspected using lights at Hilliker's Ranch Fresh Eggs in Lakeview, Calif. in 2014.
(Los Angeles Times)

Egg washing — it’s one of the many unglamorous tasks at my family’s midsized Minnesota farm. We hand gather eggs and lug baskets past our often empty rainwater cistern to the processing building. There we’re federally bound to wash eggs with water treated with sanitizer.

Nationally this egg washing process runs through some 600-million gallons of fresh water every year. And post-wash, eggs are whisked into 45-degree refrigeration and kept that way from farm cooler to your fridge. Calculating the energy outlay needed to chill all of America’s eggs is beyond this chicken farmer.

One reason America’s commercially sold eggs — 99.8 billion annually — require all that water and mechanical cooling is salmonella, a bacterium that makes camp in the intestinal tract, and sometimes the ovaries, of hens and other critters. It’s one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

Salmonella can be spread to the yolk or white of an egg from infected fecal matter on the shell when it’s cracked open. Washing takes care of that problem, but it can’t do anything for eggs that are infected before the shell is even formed. Refrigeration keeps bacteria in check, but eggs must also be cooked thoroughly to be safe. That means no dipping your toast tips into a soft-boiled breakfast egg or eating a classic Caesar salad. And think about making chocolate chip cookies. I don’t know about you, but the last time I made a batch, I taste-tested the dough. Department of Agriculture rules say that’s verboten.

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There’s a better way to protect consumers from salmonella in eggs — vaccinate the birds.

When Britain set up new poultry safety rules in 2009, it mandated vaccination for nearly all its commercial egg layers. Within just one year, infection rates dropped to only 1% in its flocks. Now salmonella poisoning from eggs is virtually unheard of in Britain. Vaccination is mandated throughout Europe as well, with similar results.

[American] commercial eggs must be pristine under harsh florescent supermarket lights, with nothing to indicate that they are the product of a live animal.

Even though there’s no U.S. law requiring it, we vaccinate hens at our farm, too. It costs less than a dime per chicken; it helps us sleep at night — and we’re hardly alone. According to a 2015 USDA report, nearly 90% of U.S. layers have been vaccinated against salmonella as young birds.

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But we are still conscripted to wash and chill our eggs. That’s too bad.

Washing destroys a shell’s natural, invisible protective coating, called the cuticle, which keeps eggs airtight and shelf stable for about four weeks. Once we wash it off, refrigeration becomes crucial. There’s an argument that egg washing isn’t just for food safety, but to satisfy the aesthetic demands of U.S. consumers. Our commercial eggs must be pristine under harsh florescent supermarket lights, with nothing to indicate that they are the product of a live animal. Washing makes the illusion possible, especially if the eggs come from the largest American flocks — when 100,000 hens are warehoused together, things are apt to get messy.

In Britain and Europe, farmers are prohibited from washing eggs at all; the shell’s cuticle has to be preserved. Of course, their customers want clean eggs, too, which encourages smaller, more hygienic egg operations. EU farmers may use sandpaper to brush off fecal matter or straw on eggs, but that’s the extent of the allowable processing. Eggs produced this way stay fresh in open-air displays, are safe soft-boiled and still look a lot like their American cousins, save for a few scuff marks.

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The U.S. rules for hens and eggs need to adapt to the advancements in avian science and the realities of strained resources. Outdated washing and refrigeration directives should give way to mandated salmonella vaccination programs for all American layers, and to smaller, cleaner egg farms. For the sake of food safety and water and energy stewardship, it’s time for Americans to see the beauty in not-quite-pristine food.

Lucie B. Amundsen is the author of “Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-changing Egg Farm – from Scratch.”

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