Signs for farm fresh eggs have popped up everywhere this summer. Driving around my hometown in Portage County, Ohio, it seems like there’s at least one sign every quarter mile.
I’m not too surprised. Backyard chicken operations were started all over during quarantine last year, and not just in rural areas. Suburban and urban neighborhoods saw a rise in hobby farms and community egg sellers as well. All those chicks consumers bought have to be producing a lot of eggs, which creates a saturated market and a lot of roadside stands.
Legal requirements in Ohio
Ohio law contains requirements for licensing and registration of egg marketing activities and labeling and refrigeration of marketed eggs; however, they don’t apply to those with fewer than 500 birds selling only eggs direct to consumers on the premises where the eggs were produced. That means Ohio Department of Agriculture Registration and a Retail Food Establishment License from a local health department are not required and labeling regulations and refrigeration requirements do not apply to backyard egg sellers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe to buy eggs from your neighbor, a house with a hand-painted sign or the hobby farm down the road. It just means it’s a good idea to understand good handling practices to ensure food safety when buying or selling farm fresh eggs.
Living conditions of hens
Ensuring quality eggs that are safe for human consumption starts with good nesting conditions for hens.
- The coop should be clean and dry with litter that is in good condition.
- Producers should provide a minimum of one nest per every four hens.
- Nests should be cleaned once a week.
- A perch for chickens to sleep on should be mounted away from the nests to limit feces in the nesting area.
- Feeding and watering equipment should be kept clean.
- Control methods should be in place for rodents, flies, beetles, birds and cats because all of these animals can spread Salmonella.
- Egg-producing hens should all be healthy and separated from any sick or presumed sick birds.
- Providing hens with supplemental calcium can prevent eggs from cracking.
Applying good management strategies when collecting eggs can also help limit the transmission of contaminants and ensure the quality of eggs.
- Eggs should be collected at least once a day, but ideally, two to three times a day to ensure they are fresh, intact and haven’t come into contact with additional feces or bacteria after they’ve been laid.
- Eggs with broken or cracked shells should be discarded.
- Collect eggs only from nests and discard eggs that have fallen on the ground.
Cleaning eggs is a tricky business. Eggs naturally have a protective bloom that prevents bacteria from entering. The bloom is a gelatinous outer layer that dries after a hen lays an egg. It seals the pores in the egg’s shell to help block bacterial infection. When eggs are cleaned using water the protective bloom is removed.
Backyard eggs producers are not required to clean eggs before selling them. However, leaving feces on the exteriors of their eggs could increase the incidence of infection from feces among their customers.
One cleaning option is using a dry cleaning method and gently scraping away dirt and feces using fine sandpaper, a brush or an emery cloth. Because there’s no water involved there’s less risk of bacteria passing through the eggshells during the cleaning process.
The other option for cleaning eggs is following commercial standards. In this instance, eggs should be washed in potable water that is 15-20 F warmer than the egg temperature and at least 90 F. Eggs should be placed in a suspended colander and rinsed without being completely submerged. If cold water is used to wash eggs or the eggs soak in water, the contents on the inside of the eggs can contract and pull water and contaminants in through their shells. Using water to wash eggs removes the protective bloom, reducing the chances of infection from feces and increasing the likelihood of bacterial infection. Rags and sponges should be avoided when cleaning eggs this way, as they hold in bacteria. A soft brush may be used instead. If sanitizers are used during the cleaning process, follow label instructions. Always wash your hands before and after cleaning eggs.
After eggs are cleaned and dried they should be refrigerated as quickly as possible. Use a thermometer to make sure the internal temperature in the refrigerator is below 45 F.
Age of eggs
Raw eggs in their shell can be refrigerated and consumed for three to five weeks. However, over time their quality decreases.
When eggs are laid their internal temperature is typically around 105 F and there is no air cell. As they cool, an air cell forms between the two shell membranes at the large end of the egg due to contraction between the shell and its contents. Simultaneously, the white and egg yolk or each egg loses quality. The yolk absorbs water from the white and moisture and carbon dioxide in the white evaporate through the pores of the eggshell. Over time, the air pocket enlarges, the egg white becomes thinner and runnier and the yolk becomes larger, flatter and more easily broken.
As these internal protective barriers break down, eggs become more susceptible to bacteria. Egg whites discourage bacterial growth with their alkalinity and thickness. As they weaken with age, more bacteria can travel through the egg whites and reach the yolks where they will be able to thrive if eggs are stored at warm temperatures. It’s important to note if one of the eggs in a batch is infected, it’s likely all of the eggs in the batch will become infected.
Refrigeration slows the loss of egg quality and lessens the risk of contamination over time. Storing eggs at room temperature can make eggs drop as much as one grade per day.
Candling eggs is the process of using light to examine eggs more closely to help determine quality. Commercial egg packers use automated mass-scanning equipment to look for cracked shells and interior defects before packing eggs. Small-scale producers and their consumers can mimic this process by holding individual eggs in front of a bright light to spot-check eggs. Eggs with abnormal shape, spots, cracks and other irregularities should be discarded.
What to do as a local consumer
- Ask about flock management and living conditions, how frequently eggs are collected, how eggs are cleaned and stored and ask how old the eggs are if you’re buying from a backyard egg seller. Most of this information would typically be printed on a label or required by legal standards, but small flocks are exempt from many commercial practices.
- Inspect eggs for cracks and other irregularities before buying.
- Crack eggs in a bowl before using to examine for defects. Occasionally, blood spots develop on egg yolks. It is most often caused by a ruptured blood vessel during yolk formation. According to the American Egg Board, eggs with blood spots are safe to eat. Just remove the blood spot with a spoon.
- Wash hands, utensils and equipment with hot soapy water before and after contact with raw eggs.
- Never consume raw or undercooked eggs.
- Cook eggs until yolks are firm and cook foods containing eggs to an internal temperature of 160 F, measuring with a food thermometer.
- Discard raw and cooked eggs left at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
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