Why You Don't Want to Buy Organic Eggs at the Grocery Store – Part 1
Eggs are one of the most beneficial foods you can eat, and it’s a shame they’ve been vilified for so long in the United States. In the U. S., roughly 280 million birds give us about 75 billion eggs per year, which is about 10 percent of the world supply.
But not all eggs are created equal.
Eggs from truly organic, free-range chickens are FAR less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, and their nutrient content is also much higher than commercially raised eggs. The dramatically superior nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens.
If you are eating organically, then you have learned how important the diet and care of an animal is to the quality of its meat, and in this case, their eggs. But have you ever thought about what happens to these eggs AFTER they are collected?
You would think that organic eggs would be your best choice when picking them up at the grocery store. However, most states have laws that make them illegal unless all the eggs that are sold commercially are processed in a way that could damage them.
Some states require that all eggs receive a chlorine bath and mineral oil coating before they are nestled into their cartons.
There are vast differences in how eggs are processed and handled, even under the “certified organic” label.
As it turns out, what happens outside the shell is as important as what happens inside the shell, and that is the focus of this report.
Your Egg’s Journey from Hen to Market
Ideally, eggs should be processed the day after they are laid. The USDA requires processing within 30 days of lay. High quality eggs are processed within seven days of lay.
Egg processing involves the following six steps:
1. Egg collecting
4. Candling (a measure for assessing the interior quality of the eggs whereby eggs are held up in front of a high-intensity light and visually examined; among other problems, cracks can be identified that necessitate disposal of the egg)
It is the cleaning process that you as a consumer should be aware of, because in this step, chemicals and contaminants may be introduced that compromise your eggs’ quality.
Why Eggshells are Like Your Skin
Did you know that, like your skin, eggshells are actually a porous membrane rather than an impermeable barrier?
An eggshell contains approximately 7,500 pores or openings. The outer surface is covered with a waxy cuticle (called the bloom when on a chicken egg), sealing the egg and helping prevent bacteria from entering.
Gases are transferred and moisture is lost through these pores.
When moisture is lost, carbon dioxide is also lost, speeding up the breakdown of the egg.[i] Loss of carbon dioxide causes the egg’s pH to increase, which results in thinning of the albumen.
Why is this important?
Because commercial processing regularly destroys this protective cuticle.
As it turns out, it is standard industry practice to wash chicken eggs. Depending on the method of washing, the cuticle can be easily damaged, which leaves your eggs vulnerable to contamination and faster spoilage. The egg industry knows this, so to replace what Mother Nature put there for good reason, they must coat the egg with something—often mineral oil. It’s akin to adding preservatives to processed foods.
Not only is mineral oil a non-natural agent, but it’s a petroleum product that was never intended for you to eat.
Some egg producers use vegetable oil as a more natural alternative.
If you are a culinary talent, you might be surprised to hear that using eggs whose shells were oiled will prevent those “stiff peaks” from happening, because some percentage of the oil seeps into the egg white.
Not all eggs undergo oiling, but many larger producers do, particularly if they are preparing their eggs for long-distance shipment and/or storage.
According to the “incredible edible egg [ii]” website, about 10 percent of all eggs are oiled. I could find no statistic about what percentage of eggs are cleaned in a way that their cuticle has been wiped out, but I suspect it is much higher than 10 percent.
Like your skin, what’s put ON your egg goes INTO your egg. Meaning, whatever the eggshell comes into contact with can cross over this semi-permeable membrane and end up in your scrambled eggs, from chlorine to mineral oil to dish soap -- to salmonella.
Your Organic Eggs May Be Chlorinated or Rinsed in Lye
According to A Guide to On-Farm Processing for Organic Producers: Table Eggs [iii], detergents and other chemicals used for “wet cleaning” eggs must either be non-synthetic or among the allowed synthetics on the National List of allowed non-agricultural substances (205.603 of the National Organic Standard).
These synthetics include:
- Chlorine (sodium hypochlorate)
- Potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide (lye)
- Sodium carbonate
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Peracetic acid (peroxyacetic acid) -- a mixture of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide
These agents serve mostly as sanitizers, rather than washing agents.
If chlorine is used at levels over 4 ppm, it must be followed with a clean water rinse at no more than 4 ppm residual levels. Chlorine itself is relatively benign and breaks down to chloride in your body -- which is not much different from the chloride ion in table salt.
However, chlorine can interact with organic materials to form highly toxic compounds called DBPs (Disinfection Byproducts), which can be carcinogenic and mutagenic. And eggs are an “organic material,” which bears the question of what chemical interactions are occurring in a chlorinated egg that have yet to be discovered?
Instead of harsh chemicals, the guide cited above4 recommends cleaning eggs with plain vinegar (mixed with 3 parts water) because it is non-synthetic and quite effective at removing both bacteria and stains on the eggshells (which some people find objectionable).
Some farmers report rinsing eggs very quickly in water, just to dislodge any debris, and believe this is adequate. Others use a dry brushing process -- no liquids at all -- just a brush, sandpaper, or a loofah sponge.
This dry brushing technique is highly recommended for small producers.
If eggs are rinsed in water, it is very important that the wash water be about 20 degrees warmer than the eggs, and at least 90 degrees6 F, but not more than 40 degrees above the eggs’ temperature because of the risk of thermal cracking. This proper temperature gradient encourages the contents of the egg to swell and push the dirt out of the pores.
If the water is too cold relative to the egg, the egg can literally “suck in” the washing solution -- along with the bacteria in it. Water exposure should be as brief as possible to minimize the potential for contamination, and the eggs dried immediately.
Mineral oil is not listed in the National List of allowed substances.
I think it is unlikely that an organic farmer would choose to use mineral oil, but the regulations are so variable from state to state, and the national guidelines so nebulous, that there is lots of wiggle room.
Be sure to read part 2 of “Why You Don't Want to Buy Organic Eggs at the Grocery Store.”
[i] “Fresh Farm Eggs—Marketing and Regulations” (Agricultural and Natural Resources Fact Sheet #511), Washington State University Cooperative Extension for King County, king.wsu.edu/foodandfarms/documents/eggfsfnl.pdf
[ii] American Egg Board (AEB), incredibleegg.org
[iii] Fanatico, A and Keupper G. “A Guide to on-farm processing for organic producers: Table eggs”, thepoultrysite.com/articles/1492/a-guide-to-onfarm-processing-for-organic-producers-table-eggs
[iv] “Guidance for shell egg cleaners and sanitizers,” USDA Regulations and Policies, Food Safety and Inspection Service, origin-www.fsis.usda.gov/Regulations_&_Policies/Shell_Egg_Cleaners_&_Sanitizers_Guidance/index.asp
[v] Fanatico A. and Conner B. (2009) “Small-scale egg handling,” National Sustainable Agricultural Service (ATTRA Publication #IP348/346), attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/egghandling.html
[vi] “Storing eggs differs in Europe, America” (May 6, 2009), projo.com/food/content/fd-storing_eggs_q_a_05-06-09_5SE6BC7_v4.205aa1e.html
[vii] Plamondon R. “Egg quality/egg washing”, plamondon.com/faq_eggwashing.html