I lived in Ireland for a few years and one of the things that shocked me the most was going to the grocery store and seeing unrefrigerated eggs sitting on the shelf. I thought it was almost barbaric and I couldn’t imagine how many people got sick from such a backwards practice.

Now I know better.

Salmonella on My Eggs

Although I didn’t know at the time, salmonella was what I worried about when I saw these grocery store shelf eggs.  Salmonella is almost ubiquitous in eggs.  It is a bacteria that comes from chicken feces and can make us very sick with flulike symptoms that could result in death for the young or weak.  Most if not all chicken eggs have some salmonella.

Fortunately, when salmonella levels are very low our body has no problem fighting them off.  However, if salmonella levels are too high they can overwhelm our immune system. To make it even worse, antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella have developed making it impossible to treat with medicine.

Refrigeration and Egg Washing

When we refrigerate eggs, we help to decrease the production of salmonella.  An experiment performed by Mother Earth News, showed that refrigerated eggs would last at least seven months.  So why in Europe are eggs not refrigerated? And why do I now store my eggs on the counter instead of the refrigerator?

Well I should have mentioned that in Europe it is also illegal to wash eggs.  Wait what? Doesn’t washing things keep you safe? Wouldn’t it be even worse to store unwashed eggs out of the fridge?

Think about it from the hen’s perspective.  A hen lays somewhere around 10 eggs before she sits on them for another 21 days to hatch out babies. Each of those 10 eggs is laid one per day sometimes with a break in between. This means that eggs are designed to last at least a month without going bad and with no refrigeration.

See, God designed the chicken egg with some pretty good engineering.  As the egg is made inside the hen, her reproductive tract paints the egg with a layer of antibacterial coating that keeps salmonella from getting into the egg and killing the embryo.  This coating is called “bloom” and it is easily washed off.

According to European Union (EU) guidelines:  “Such damage may favor trans-shell contamination with bacteria and moisture loss and thereby increase the risk to consumers, particularly if subsequent drying and storage conditions are not optimal.”

Industrial Eggs are Dirty Eggs

Unless you are buying from a small farmer, chances are you are getting your eggs from a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO.  Industrial hen houses can contain tens of thousands of hens crammed into tiny cages.   Disease is rampant and hens are filthy.  Salmonella levels on industrial eggs are many times higher than on eggs from smaller, organically fed and free-ranging flocks.

When hens are laying eggs in conditions like these, there is a good chance of feces getting on the eggs. Instead of the egg factories providing better conditions for their chickens, they have resorted to egg washing both for sanitation purposes as well as to please the customer.

When eggs are scrubbed, rinsed, dried and sprayed with chlorine, the bloom of the egg is washed off.  Unfortunately, since an eggshell contains approximately 7,500 pores or openings, once it has been washed it is easy for salmonella to enter the egg.  Also, whatever comes into contact with the eggshell can enter the egg such as the chlorine it has been sprayed with.

Store your Eggs Pointy Side Down

You may have never noticed that your eggs always come with the pointy side facedown and if you have, you may not know why you store them this way. For the longest time I didn’t. I would always tell people I don’t know why, but I know you are supposed to put them in the carton pointy side down.

This is due to the egg not completely filling up the eggshell.  In fact, there is an air pocket inside the eggshell.  You can see this if you crack open a hard-boiled egg on the fat end—there is a pocket of air between the albumin, the white of the egg, and the shell.  On the pointy end, the white fits snuggly.

This pocket of the air is a good incubator for salmonella. The trick is to keep the air pocket as far away from the egg yolk as possible as the yolk is much more susceptible to salmonella growth.

If you hold the egg with the fat end down, the air pocket will rise enough to reach the yolk. When you store eggs pointy side down, the pocket of air will stay away from the yolk and the egg will stay fresh longer.

Locally Raised Eggs Are Usually Best

The key is really to buy your eggs locally.  Farmers have 30 days from the day an egg is laid to get it to the stores and the stores have another 30 days to sell them.  Since the eggs are washed, the USDA recommends a maximum of 5 weeks in your refrigerator before you discard your eggs.  This means your washed commercial eggs could be months old by the time you eat them.

In my opinion, buying local is even preferable to buying organic eggs from the grocery store as organic eggs may be washed as well.  The only way to know for sure is to ask the farmer.  With face-to-face contact, you can ask questions and even get a tour.

If all else fails, you can easily test the freshness of your eggs.  You can tell the age of the egg by how much it floats. The floating is due to the production waste gases by bacterial growth.  Place the egg in a bowl of cold water.  If it sinks, it’s fresh. If it floats to the top, it’s old.