If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to wander the aisles of a grocery store overseas, you may have been puzzled by the fact that eggs are stored out in the open, far away from the cooling power of the perimeter refrigeration systems. This was very alarming to me the first time I witnessed it - yet it’s a completely commonplace and well-accepted practice in most other countries. But why?
While the Europeans’ dogmatism towards storing their eggs on the countertop and the American insistence that they be stored in the refrigerator seem inherently contradictory, these opposing methods were actually created in pursuit of the same ultimate goal. Salmonella enteritidis, more colloquially known simply as salmonella, has been a major cause of food poisoning for decades. The bacteria is usually killed after it’s exposed to heat (this is why we were always told never to eat the raw cookie dough), but nonetheless is responsible for more than 140,000 food-related illnesses in the United States every year.
Here in America, we’ve chosen to address this issue by egg washing - a process that sounds a bit ludicrous but has achieved relative success in minimizing salmonella epidemics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires producers to wash their eggs with a combination of a special, non-odorous detergent and water upwards of 100°F. The eggs are then sprayed with a disinfecting spray and dried to remove excess moisture, preventing the growth and transport of pathogenic microbes on the outer shell.
However, this rigorous cleaning process also strips away the natural protective layer of an egg, known as a cuticle. Without this, eggs are generally seen as more permeable to bacteria and more subject to degradation, and thus are immediately moved to cooler temperatures to maintain stability. But here’s the important catch - once an egg is refrigerated, it must stay refrigerated until it’s consumed. If it’s moved from a cooler environment to a warmer one, such as the aisles of a grocery store or even the trunk of someone’s car after grocery shopping, a layer of condensation can form on the outside of the shell. These water droplets are the perfect medium for the spread of pathogens.
Our counterparts over in the European Union have taken a different approach. They banned the process of egg washing and instead opted for more preventative measures -- the vast majority of hens are vaccinated against salmonella, which explains why washing was deemed unnecessary (and thus so is refrigeration).
Put bluntly, both regulatory frameworks are effective. There are small caveats in favor of both, like the fact that refrigerated eggs have a longer shelf-life but room-temperature eggs allegedly have a fresher and more palatable taste. It’s admittedly a bit strange that American-produced eggs are illegal to sell in the EU, but at the end of the day both locations have a pretty remarkable safety record when it comes to preventing salmonella (an “eggcellent” safety record, if you will).
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.