The first time I visited Europe it took me nearly an hour to locate eggs in the grocery store. Carefully searching every cold case I could find, I came up short.
Finally, walking through the central aisle of the store, resigning myself to the fact that there would be no eggs for me, I saw the mother lode. Stacks and stacks of trays of eggs and next to them, more eggs in giant baskets and bowls. Pre-filled trays of 30, 12, 10, eight, six or four eggs were available, or if one of those magic numbers didn’t suit, there were empty paper cartons to build your own packet of eggs. Egg-citing!
But wait, why weren’t these eggs in a cold case? Were they safe for me to eat?
While we certainly aren’t talking third world conditions, there is a degree of caution required any time you travel out of your home country when it comes to food and drink. By the time we moved to France earlier this year, I had spent time in Europe and had long ago learned there was no need to fear those unrefrigerated eggs. Science explains why.
Eggs in Europe are never refrigerated and it is perfectly safe. However, if you return home from your European holiday and want to retain a bit of the culture and decide to leave your eggs in the USA out at room temperature, you may be in trouble. In fact, “sustained refrigeration of shell eggs” is one of three key interventions in the attempt to eliminate salmonella in eggs in America.
And it really comes down to salmonella, that pesky invader that multiplies like wildfire in the right conditions (heat being one of those). Salmonella can contaminate eggs from outside (chicken manure or other organic matter) or from inside the egg (passed on from a salmonella-contaminated hen to the egg before it is laid).
It is the differing approach to preventing salmonella that leads to the difference in how eggs are stored in Europe and the USA.
In the States, the approach is to prevent salmonella on the exterior of the eggs, so egg producers are required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to thoroughly wash eggs on the outside. That entails a hot water washing, drying and misting with a mild chlorine solution soon after eggs are laid.
In Europe, prevention begins before the egg is even laid, by vaccinating the hens for salmonella. (Some American egg producers have adopted this approach and do vaccinate for salmonella; however, US-produced eggs still must be washed, thus also must be refrigerated to be considered safe for consumption).
In the European Union, it is actually illegal for grade A eggs, those you find on supermarket shelves, to be washed. Illegal. (You can read the EU guidelines here.)This is because washing degrades or removes the protective outer waxy coating of the egg (the cuticle). The cuticle is nature’s way of preventing anything from entering the egg via the porous shell. That coating is removed during the washing process that US-produced eggs go through, thus leaving the porous shell prone to allow unwanted bacteria inside the egg, and potentially, inside the consumer if the egg is consumed raw or undercooked. In fact, in its own Egg-Grading Manual, the USDA reveals that the washing process removes the outer protective cuticle of the egg. (See the manual, page 7.)
And if you’re thinking that you’ll find a bunch of disgustingly filthy eggs in the European supermarket due to the lack of egg washing, think again. European farmers strive to produce the cleanest possible eggs in the best possible conditions – otherwise, no one will buy the eggs they produce. The difference I notice most in eggs in our local markets here in France is that you may see an occasional feather (rare) and you definitely feel the outer coating (cuticle) on the eggs.
I’ve found eggs stored at room temperature provide me with a couple of added bonuses, too: (1) I don’t need to give up precious refrigerator space for eggs any longer and (2) my eggs are always at room temperature and ready for baking.
So, there you have it, the reason eggs aren’t refrigerated in Europe and why you better keep them in the chill chest in the States.
Now, some additional info since first posting because of the huge response on Facebook:
- For more information on raising your own chickens and just about everything you care to know about eggs and egg safety, check out Backyard Chickens. Someone shared it with me on the FB page and from a quick glance through, it seems to be a very informative site.
- To test your eggs (refrigerated or not) for freshness, you can do the “Float Test”.
FLOAT TEST FOR EGG FRESHNESS
Carefully place eggs in a bowl of plain cold water. Eggs that sink are fresh, eggs that float are not fresh and should be discarded.
Now, here’s WHY:
Because egg shells are porous, over time, air enters the egg (it’s called an “air cell”). The longer eggs are stored, the more air that enters. The more air inside the egg, the more buoyant it is, making it float. So, old air-filled eggs will float. Also, over time, some fluid escapes through the porous shell via evaporation, so that contributes as well.
Some eggs tilt or stand on end. These are still fairly fresh, but should be used soon. Older eggs are best for making hard boiled eggs or for using in dishes that are cooked thoroughly.