Americans like to solve problems, and frequently we like to create problems to solve. The fact that we refrigerate eggs turns out to be an example of our need to fulfill such a desire.
Before I get to the science, I must take you to France. In high school, I was lucky enough to visit France on a summer class trip for two weeks. I have so many pictures and knickknacks, as well as fun memories, from those two weeks. One of them involves eggs.
My friend and I were in a small mom-and-pop convenience store. She wanted croissants for snacking on the bus while we traveled the country. I picked up these chocolate candy eggs (which I now know are called Kinder Eggs).
Behind me, I heard my friend ask, “Why are the eggs out here?” She was looking at their eggs, not refrigerated and on a shelf. [Ensue teenager confusion and #firstworldproblems].
Adult me needed to investigate the non-refrigeration of eggs by other countries. I was surprised to discover NPR’s reporting that the U.S. is one of only four industrialized countries to refrigerate eggs. Joining us on that list are Japan, Australia, and Scandinavia.
Isn’t It Necessary to Wash and Refrigerate Eggs? Won’t They Go Bad Without Refrigeration?
When a hen lays an egg, the egg has a protective outer layer. That coating is like a little safety vest for the egg, keeping water and oxygen in and bad bacteria out. Some say the majority of eggs will remain safe and normal-tasting for upwards of several months when stored at room temperature in their natural state. Washing the egg damages that layer and “increase[s] the chances for bacterial invasion” into pores or hairline cracks in the shell, according to Yi Chen, a food scientist at Purdue University.
Because we’re America, our eggs are power washed until pristine, sprayed with an oily substitute to recreate that natural barrier and prevent bacteria from getting in, then we refrigerate eggs to keep microorganisms at bay. The problem is, the replacement egg shell coating isn’t as good as mother nature’s. Also, if you’ve ever seen what power washing can do to a human leg, it’s not hard to imagine how even significantly less pressure applied to a delicate egg shell could introduce minor damages. This is where refrigeration becomes necessary to prevent bacterial growth and food-born illnesses.
But, if the egg already has a built-in protective covering, why wash it off in the first place and apply a substitute? Salmonella. We have a fear of illnesses, we associate cleanliness with healthy things, and the idea of leaving eggs without sanitizing makes us feel icky. So we created this process to correct a perceived problem.
Show Me the ‘Refrigerate or Not’ Egg Money
Once eggs are washed and the faux sealant applied, FDA safety laws mandate they must remain refrigerated until ready to eat, in order to keep the bacteria away. This means refrigerating eggs at the processing plant, in transit to a distributor, while stored at the distribution facility, in transit to the store, in storage if cooler space is not immediately available, refrigerated display at the store, and finally use of a personal refrigerator.
Many countries are not equipped with the agricultural infrastructure to maintain such a system. And, according to one study in 1977, the health benefits don’t outweigh the economical implications (MOTHER’s Great Egg Preservation Experiment). The cheaper workaround is to not remove the natural protective coating in the first place. Considering the lack of steady worldwide egg contamination headlines, both approaches seem to work. Taste tests comparing washed and refrigerated eggs to unwashed eggs stored at room temperature showed no discernible differences.
Salmonella and Mandatory Hen Vaccination
Even the meticulous and costly U.S. policy requiring we wash and refrigerate eggs is not error-free. American regulators discovered almost 550 million eggs from two Iowa farms were contaminated with salmonella in 2010. Some officials suggested vaccinating hens against salmonella, a tactic used by Britain after similar incidents. Britain saw a stunning 96% drop in contamination. Internal FDA documents reviewed by the New York Times suggested at least a decade of anti-vaccination fodder. Decision-makers did not seem open to consideration, even when presented with new evidence or studies.