I have family members that won’t eat the eggs from our backyard flocks. They say they don’t know how “clean” the eggs are, to which I might respond that all eggs come from a chicken’s butt, and I guess concepts of cleanliness thereafter can be debated. But the real fear when people mention “clean” is salmonella in family flocks, the concept that all eggs are infected with salmonella if they aren’t “clean” enough from home producers, as opposed to factory-farmed eggs, which most consumers assume are safer because of regulations.

While I never give our eggs to family members who won’t eat them, I do think it’s important to offer some education to people who believe that factory-farmed eggs are free from bacteria or “safer.”

  1. When chickens have a salmonella infection that would infect eggs, the chickens display clinical signs that are very noticeable: a blue comb or wattle (blue being a sign of decreased oxygen intake, much less blue lips in a person), watery diarrhea, lack of appetite, and finally, a reluctance to move. As as a chicken keeper whose birds rush the food dish every morning, whose combs are unmistakably red, and whose poop I have to clean off the perches everyday, I would not miss the symptoms of salmonella. Normal chicken droppings are easy to recognize and variations are an instant indicator if something is amiss. It’s easy to see when chickens are healthy, because they are normally energetic animals, interested in their surroundings, quick to investigate new food (no matter that they have seen it before), and quite interactive. A sick hen is instantly visible, and most family flock keepers would be terribly distressed when their bird doesn’t come running to them or eat from a food scoop. It’s not an infection that is easily missed. Family flock keepers most likely know their birds well enough to be able to separate, medicate and toss any eggs in the case that their bird could become sick.
  2. By comparison, the last large factory outbreak of salmonella occurred in a factory farm in Iowa that had multiple previous safety violations, and by 2010, the salmonella outbreak was just one of many by the same food manufacturer.
  3. There are no regulations for how long a factory farm can keep eggs before placing them in a carton to sell in a store, and there are no regulations for egg expiration dates set by the FDA. Eggs from the grocery store are just as much, if not more so, a case of buyer beware, because consumers have no way of knowing how old the eggs in a store really are.
  4. One blogger, a food and recipe tester for Slate, wrote about the chances of getting salmonella from an egg, and the stats are nothing to be worried about: “Still, speaking personally, the statistics haven’t scared me off unpasteurized eggs for good. If I continued consuming batter and dough containing about two raw eggs per month, I would likely encounter only one SE-contaminated egg over the course of 833 years. And if I remain generally healthy, I might not even get sick from that SE-contaminated egg. Of course, by the time I’m 860, my immune system will probably be weak enough that I’ll want to avoid unpasteurized eggs. In the meantime, though, I’ll take my chances on that cake batter.”
  5. Americans are some of the only people in the world who store their eggs in the fridge, and most experts suggest that this is because American eggs are essentially dirtier. The British are famous for not storing their eggs in the fridge, believing they have better salmonella-control procedures in place for their eggs than Americans, and consequently, the British store their eggs at room temperature. In fact British regulations prohibit storing eggs in the fridge before sale to consumers: “A fresh, free-range egg should last beautifully at room temperature for at least a week,” said Tim Hayward, presenter of the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 and restaurant columnist for the Financial Times. “The racks in the fridge door are the worst place to store eggs. The constant shaking thins the whites and the flavours of other foods can penetrate the shell.”Warm eggers stand their ground on the basis that supermarkets in continental Europe store their eggs at room temperature and not the fridge. In Europe, eggs are often sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf near the baking supplies. Eggs “should in general not be refrigerated before sale to the final consumer,” according to European Union (EU) law, Forbes reports. “Cold eggs left out at room temperature may become covered in condensation facilitating the growth of bacteria on the shell and probably their ingression into the egg,” reads the EU regulations.”
  6. Lab test results provided by the same labs that advise the U.K. food and drink industry tested room temperature eggs vs. refrigerated eggs, and the results showed unrefrigerated eggs, if fresh, were completely safe to eat. In fact, they harbored no more bacteria than refrigerated eggs:”One egg batch was kept at room temperature, generally between 68°F and 77°F, and the other was kept at typical fridge temperature at approximately 43°F. These samples were continuously tested for bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.The results of the study showed that both batches of eggs were equally bacteria-free from the initial start of the study all the way to the end of the study — a span of two weeks. “There is no advantage in keeping the eggs refrigerated as opposed to storing them at ambient room temperature,” said Jay Tolley, the operations and quality manager at FoodTest.”
  7. Hens in factory farmed egg manufacturing plants are generally so mistreated that it’s no surprise that they would be sick: “By the time they are sent to slaughter, roughly 29 percent of the hens are suffering from broken bones resulting from neglect and rough treatment. Their emaciated bodies are so damaged that their flesh can generally be used only for chicken noodle soup, companion animal food, or “canned, boned, and diced” meat, much of which goes to the National School Lunch Program.”

The bottom line is, eggs are safe to keep at room temperature for at least two weeks, if you have healthy hens. If your hens have salmonella, you would have very definite clinical signs, such as no egg production, lack of appetite, and lack of movement, not tough to miss.

The real test for us, as far as bacteria loads in eggs, has come from hatching. When eggs are hatched, they remain warm, moist, and well, incubated, conditions making bacterial growth ripe for explosion. In all the eggs we have hatched, we have had only one egg be contaminated with bacteria, years ago and that was after three weeks in the incubator, with lots of handling, when I found a crack in the shell. There had been no embryo development. That was one egg, with a cracked shell, three years ago, with the bacteria most likely entering through the crack as no other eggs in that same nest had any bacterial issues, having been incubated for three weeks in an incubator.

For us, the integrity of the shell is the most important means of protecting an egg from bacteria. I have had eggs that froze in the fridge, had a cracked shell, and then  have an off odor, but that is the extent of it. Our family did have an issue with eggs freezing this past winter, but it happened mainly in the fridge, when we set a bunch of eggs in the coldest part of the fridge, mistakenly believing that was the best place, and the eggs froze, shells cracked, and the texture of the yolks and whites changed. Note: maybe storing at room temperature would have been best, because accidentally freezing our eggs meant we had to throw out more than we could consume by thawing and putting in batters or doughs. Our family doesn’t really like the texture of frozen eggs.

That said, when the eggs froze, I had calls from both my brothers asking if the birds were sick. They were not, but I couldn’t figure out why they asked. Then I realized the eggs were frozen and the yolks and whites do not look the same when thawed. It’s possible that bacteria could have gotten into open egg shells from eggs sitting in the fridge, and while I am certain of the chickens’ health, I have had to recently toss produce that I had that was part of last recall for bagged salads containing Listeria recognized on January 31, 2016. The CDC notified us of that one, but since I had stored the eggs in the fridge with the possible Listeria-contaminated greens, I bleached everything nearby (not the eggs, but I did switch cartons). I did feel sick after eating the bagged salad. I found it ironic that people are in an uproar about eggs when it’s the salad making us sick.

For those of you who don’t care to read the whole post but wonder about the safety of eggs, bacteria, sell by dates and the like, eggs from healthy hens are fine to keep at room temperature for at least two weeks without growing bacteria (maybe longer, but the experiment only lasted two weeks). Hens that are ill enough to transmit high enough levels of bacteria in their eggs show clinical signs that would be tough to miss. If your birds are healthy and happy, eating and pooping normally, eggs have historically been safer to eat, even without refrigeration than salads.