While working to set up our new studio in Santiago, Chile recently – I took time out to visit the city and to go grocery shopping. Visiting a large and well-stocked super market, I became fascinated as I walked down the ‘egg aisle’ that resembled any bread aisle in a U.S. super market. There they were – neatly stacked cartons of varying size and color eggs, sitting on shelves and completely unrefrigerated. This is a sight that you see most places around the world but never in the U.S. or Canada where eggs must be refrigerated to be labeled as “Grade A.”
I love eggs! We go through several cartons of fresh farm raised eggs every month at our house. Eggs are a super food full of Omega 3 and protein. I admit that I pay dearly for our eggs because they are direct from an organic farm where the chickens are raised on healthy diets, which makes these eggs richer in nutrients and less likely to contain dangerous bacteria. These eggs are only a few days old, unlike the ones at the grocery store and yes, you will sometimes find them sitting beautifully in a bowl on our kitchen counter – unrefrigerated.
So what’s the deal with refrigerated eggs versus non-refrigerated eggs? And does ‘organic’ really matter when you buy from a super market versus fresh from your local farmer?
It all starts with our government regulations requiring all USDA-graded eggs to be washed and sanitized to remove bacteria from the shell. The eggshell is naturally covered with a waxy cuticle (called the bloom) that seals the egg and helps to prevent bacteria from entering the egg. However, the eggshell contains approximately 7,500 pores making it a breathable membrane much like our own skin. This ‘washing’ process or chemical bath (often lye or chlorine), strips the bloom and exposes the egg’s pores. To re-protect the eggs for their long journey to your grocery store refrigerator, farmers then recoat the eggs, often using mineral oil. Mineral oil is a petroleum-based product, hardly organic and certainly never meant to be ingested by humans. But your store bought eggs are more than likely coated in mineral oil – and likely the egg’s open pores have allowed the oil to seep into the inner egg.
Truth be told, what your eggs are washed and then coated with is not government regulated and so you are getting with your eggs a mix of chlorine and mineral oil – yummy. Kind of takes the ‘organic’ out of the organic labeling on store eggs don’t you think? Not to mention that these chemicals can be carcinogenic and mutagenic.
Europe, Asia, South America – and almost anywhere around the world, you find the eggs unrefrigerated because they use water or dry brushing to clean the eggs before sending them to market. These techniques leave the bloom intact and so don’t require refrigeration. Small local organic farmers here in the U.S. do the same.
Eggs are only dangerous if the chicken that laid the egg was sick with an illness that would be passed on inside the egg itself. Healthy chickens do not produce unhealthy eggs – but since we seldom have access to the medical records of our eggs’ chicken-mama, I prefer buying my eggs from a local farmer who keeps a clean farm and raises healthy chickens.
The cleaning and coating process of commercial eggs is the main reason that I prefer the local organic farmer’s eggs rather than store bought eggs. But to answer the ‘refrigerate versus non-refrigerate’ question, let’s look at the time span from hen to table.
I get my eggs locally so they are less than a week out of the hen when they show up at my local farmer’s market. Where the eggs on the shelf at the grocery store went through an elaborate collection, cleaning and coating process – about a week, then traveled some distance shuttling between warehouses and transfer stations – another week – to finally reach your grocery store and get placed on a refrigerated shelf – potentially a third week. The eggs you buy at the grocery store are potentially 3 weeks old before you purchase them.
Supporting refrigeration for the commercial egg – salmonella will grow far less quickly in refrigerated eggs than it will in eggs that are left at room temperature. Eggs will also last much longer when refrigerated than they will when stored at room temperature. Given the distribution time involved, refrigeration is necessary to protect the general public from outbreaks of salmonella.
If you purchased eggs from the super market – it is not recommended that you decorate your kitchen with that French-country style bowl filled with eggs. A cold egg left out at room temperature can sweat, facilitating the growth of bacteria that could contaminate the egg. This is why it is recommended that refrigerated eggs should not be left out more than two hours.
So . . . if your kitchen décor calls for a bowl of eggs, buy from your local organic farmer. If your dietary preference is organic foods then leave the organic store eggs on the shelf and visit your local green market to find your eggs.