Walk into a British supermarket, and you may be surprised, even horrified, by what you’ll see: cartons of eggs sitting next to canned meats and baked beans—at room temperature. Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs, but Americans need to. Why? In a word: salmonella.
Because of the way the nation’s factory farms produce and distribute eggs, American consumers must take additional measures to prevent contamination from salmonella—that sneaky little pathogen that causes 1.2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year.
When it comes to minimizing salmonella infections, American producers focus on the eggshells, which could get sullied with organic matter, such as chicken feces. The USDA requires producers to rinse, dry, and mist the eggs with chlorine before sending them to market.
Europeans, on the other hand, focus on inhibiting salmonella infections in the hens themselves. In the United Kingdom, farmers began vaccinating their hens against the bacteria in 1998 so that no salmonella gets transferred from chicken to egg. How about feces on shells? Farmers depend on the eggs’ natural, thin coating to stop bacteria from seeping in. (This protective layer goes out the window when American eggs go through the rinsing process.)
England and Wales recorded 14,771 cases of a salmonella strain in 1997 before farmers started vaccinating their hens. The number dropped to 581 in 2009.
“We have pretty much eliminated salmonella as a human problem in the U.K.,” the British Egg Information Service’s director, Amanda Cryer, told The New York Times.
Thus far, the Food and Drug Administration has found insufficient evidence that mandating hen vaccination in the U.S. would be effective in keeping people from getting sick. However, Nega Beru, director of the agency’s Office of Food Safety, told the Times that FDA rules “encourage producers to vaccinate if they think it will help fight salmonella.”
“Vaccines can be a very effective component of a [Salmonella enteritidis] prevention program,” according to the FDA’s guidelines. “However, the efficacy of a vaccination program depends on various parameters, some of which include the vaccination program used, effectiveness of administration by the vaccination crew, age of the birds when the vaccine is administered, and the environmental load of SE in pullet or layer houses.... Individual producers who choose to use a vaccine should determine which program is most effective for the particular set of circumstances that exist at their farm.”
Cal-Maine Foods Inc., which last year sold Americans more than a billion eggs, vaccinates its hens.
“The FDA doesn’t say that if you vaccinate, it’ll do fewer inspections. But it’s something that we felt was important,” says Ryn Laster Divine, director of food safety at Cal-Maine, which is the largest producer and distributor of fresh shell eggs in the country. Because the agency requires all producers to wash their eggs, however, consumers still have to refrigerate Cal-Maine’s products.
So yes, Americans have to keep their eggs in the fridge—at least until the FDA changes its policies.
“Eggs shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours,” says Marianne Gravely, technical information specialist at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “There is no way to know if a shell egg is pathogen-free. Food poisoning bacteria don’t affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. You can’t tell if a chicken is infected with salmonella, so any egg, whether it came from a grocery store, a farmers market, or from your neighbor’s backyard hens, could contain salmonella.”