If you live in a bubble, you may be unaware that there was a recall of a half billion eggs recently due to salmonella contamination. If you're not in that bubble, you may wish you were--especially if you're one of the 1,400+ people sickened by the salmonella in your breakfast burrito or western skillet.
As a small farmer and small-time egg producer, I've gotten lots of attention from the egg scandal. I've had friends post comments on Facebook telling others to buy safe eggs from Irish Grove Farms. I've had comments on this blog asking how I ensure our eggs are free from contamination. And just yesterday I was contacted by our local Channel 13 News team, wanting to come out to the farm and interview me about my supposed increase in customers since the recall. (I was at work, so unable to do the interview. Whew!)
Have I had an increase in customers after the recall? I honestly don't know. But the reason I don't know is because I had so many customers before the recall, an empty fridge and disappointed customers is nothing new around here.
The reason my eggs are in high demand, however, is not because they're salmonella-free (even though they are). It's because they're so dang delicious.
A recent news release from Reuters about the FDA inspection at the two contaminated farms stated that, "During inspections conducted on August 19-26, officials found rodent holes and leaking manure at several locations run by Hillandale Farms of Iowa, and non-chicken feathers and live mice and flies at houses owned by Wright County Egg, according to reports posted on the FDA website."
As a consumer, this sounds gross. I get it: rodents and birds are dirty and carry disease, as do flies. But as a farmer it sounds normal. Can you please take me to a farm that doesn't have troubles with mice? Or flies? Or barn swallows and bats finding a way in?
Another article made it sound worse, though. At WebMD, it says, "FDA investigators found:
* Huge manure pits open to outside animals.
* Evidence that rodents, wild birds, and other animals could enter the henhouses via missing siding and gaps in doors and walls.
* Actual sightings of rodents, birds, and bird nests inside the facilities.
* So many live flies that they were crushed underfoot on walkways. Maggots "too numerous to count" were seen in at least one manure pit.
* Farm workers went from henhouse to henhouse without cleaning their tools or changing their shoes or clothing -- which can spread germs between houses.
* Uncaged birds tracked manure from the pits to the laying houses.
Some of the egg-producing hens were caged above manure pits four to eight feet deep. The weight of these vast manure pits had burst open outside doors."
OK. So some flies and mice are bad. But manure pits bursting open doors and live flies crunching underfoot is ghastly. *Shudder*
The part that has been overlooked, though , is that the egg-wash water was contaminated with salmonella. According to the Reuters article, "DA officials also said inspectors found salmonella in a water sample collected from a Hillandale Farms plant. The sample came from spent egg-wash water, or water used to wash the exterior of eggs traveling down conveyor belts to the packing facility, said Jeff Farrar, FDA's associate commissioner for food protection. DeYoung (a spokeswoman from Hillandale--Jackie's note) said eggs at Hillandale are also rinsed with water containing chlorine as an additional step to kill bacteria."
This is where the public doesn't understand what's going on. You may think that a final chlorine wash will kill the bacteria on the shell and all is well. Except for one major, glaring problem: Egg shells are porous! They have little tiny microscopic holes throughout the entire shell!
If egg shells were air-tight, how could a baby chick could breathe during development? The tiny holes in shells allow air to enter the shell, and if air can get in, so can egg-wash water. Egg-wash water contaminated with salmonella, in this case.
This is something all egg producers know. And it is why small flock owners like myself that sell "Nest Run Eggs"--meaning they aren't processed (washed, graded, candled) for commercial sale--don't wash the eggs! The eggs are wiped clean, perhaps, with a damp cloth, any nest bedding materials is flicked off, and the eggs get put in the carton as is. (If I collect a 'poopy egg', as I so technically call them, I throw it away if it's really bad, or I eat if myself if it's passable, washing it directly before use.)
When a hen lays an egg, it's wet. The wet layer on the surface of the shell is a protective coating made of protein (called a cuticle) that keeps bacteria from entering the shell. When you wash an egg this coating is lost and bacteria can pass freely into the egg. Washing eggs for a store or for market, which I can do as a licensed Egg Broker, is tricky. You must use the hottest water possible, to make the insides of the egg expand and effectively push back on the water trying to enter. If you use cool water, the opposite will happen and the egg will absorb the dirty water.
So don't be fooled when a company says they can use dirty wash-water because they give the egg a final chlorine rinse. It's not the shell you should worry about in this instance, it's the egg inside--swimming around with salmonella-wash-water. Mm, mm, good.
So what can we do? Well, we can follow the American Egg Board's recommendations: Cook eggs until the whites and yolks are firm, meaning no more eggs-over-easy or sunny-side-up, no more soft-boiled eggs, no more raw eggs in smoothies....and goodbye eggnog and custards.
And/or you can buy Nest Run Eggs from local producers with healthy birds and wash the eggs directly before use.
And/or you can buy eggs from trusted, preferably small producers that wash their eggs following safety procedures and cleanliness standards.
If you decide to buy eggs from Irish Grove Farms, though, and please do....the problem you encounter may lie more in a lack of eggs than in the quality. Consider yourself fore-warned.