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Should You Refrigerate Your Eggs or Not?

Eggs in Ref
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In the United Kingdom, they do not refrigerate their eggs – cartons of eggs sitting next to canned meats and baked beans—at room temperature. Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs, but Americans need to. Why?  Well, because a type of bacterium, Salmonella, can be on both the outside and inside of eggs that appear to be normal, and if the eggs are eaten raw or lightly cooked, the bacterium can cause illness.

Why Europeans Don’t Refrigerate Their Eggs

Europeans, on the other hand, focus on inhibiting salmonella infections in the hens themselves. In the United Kingdom, farmers began vaccinating their hens against the bacteria in 1998 so that no salmonella gets transferred from chicken to egg. How about feces on shells? Farmers depend on the eggs’ natural, thin coating to stop bacteria from seeping in. (This protective layer goes out the window when American eggs go through the rinsing process.)

England and Wales recorded 14,771 cases of a salmonella strain in 1997 before farmers started vaccinating their hens. The number dropped to 581 in 2009.

“We have pretty much eliminated salmonella as a human problem in the U.K.,” the British Egg Information Service’s director, Amanda Cryer, told The New York Times.

Why Do Americans Refrigerate Their Eggs

Because of the way the nation’s factory farms produce and distribute eggs, American consumers must take additional measures to prevent contamination from salmonella—that sneaky little pathogen that causes 1.2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year.

When it comes to minimizing salmonella infections, American producers focus on the eggshells, which could get sullied with organic matter, such as chicken feces. The USDA requires producers to rinse, dry, and mist the eggs with chlorine before sending them to market.

Thus far, the Food and Drug Administration has found insufficient evidence that mandating hen vaccination in the U.S. would be effective in keeping people from getting sick. However, Nega Beru, director of the agency’s Office of Food Safety, told the Times that FDA rules “encourage producers to vaccinate if they think it will help fight salmonella.”

“Vaccines can be a very effective component of a [Salmonella enteritidis] prevention program,” according to the FDA’s guidelines. “However, the efficacy of a vaccination program depends on various parameters, some of which include the vaccination program used, effectiveness of administration by the vaccination crew, age of the birds when the vaccine is administered, and the environmental load of SE in pullet or layer houses…. Individual producers who choose to use a vaccine should determine which program is most effective for the particular set of circumstances that exist at their farm.”

Cal-Maine Foods Inc., which last year sold Americans more than a billion eggs, vaccinates its hens.

“The FDA doesn’t say that if you vaccinate, it’ll do fewer inspections. But it’s something that we felt was important,” says Ryn Laster Divine, director of food safety at Cal-Maine, which is the largest producer and distributor of fresh shell eggs in the country. Because the agency requires all producers to wash their eggs, however, consumers still have to refrigerate Cal-Maine’s products.

“Eggs shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours,” says Marianne Gravely, technical information specialist at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “There is no way to know if a shell egg is pathogen-free. Food poisoning bacteria don’t affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. You can’t tell if a chicken is infected with salmonella, so any egg, whether it came from a grocery store, a farmers market, or from your neighbor’s backyard hens, could contain salmonella.”

Should Eggs be Refrigerated or Not, then?

Eggs, poultry, meat, milk, and other foods are safe when handled properly. Shell eggs are safest when stored in the refrigerator, individually and thoroughly cooked, and promptly consumed after cooking. The larger the number of Salmonella bacteria present in the egg, the more likely the egg is to cause illness. Keeping eggs adequately refrigerated prevents any Salmonella present in the eggs from growing to higher numbers, so eggs should be refrigerated until they are needed. So, to be safe, refrigerate your eggs.

Cooking reduces the number of bacteria present in an egg; however, a lightly cooked egg with a runny egg white or yolk still poses a greater risk than a thoroughly cooked egg. Lightly cooked egg whites and yolks have both caused outbreaks of SE infections. Cooked eggs should be consumed promptly and not be held in the temperature range of 40 to 140°F for more than 2 hours.

What are the specific actions I can take to reduce my risk of a Salmonella Infection from eggs?

  1. Like other foods, keep eggs refrigerated at ≤40° F (≤4° C) at all times. Buy eggs only from stores or other suppliers that keep them refrigerated.
  2. Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
  3. Wash hands and all food contact surface areas (countertops, utensils, dishes, and cutting boards) with soap and water after contact with raw eggs. Then disinfect the food contact surfaces using a sanitizing agent, such as bleach, following label instructions.
  4. Eggs should be thoroughly cooked until both the yolk and white are firm. Recipes containing eggs mixed with other foods should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C).
  5. Eat eggs promptly after cooking. Do not keep eggs warm or at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  6. Refrigerate unused or leftover egg-containing foods promptly.
  7. Avoid restaurant dishes made with raw or lightly cooked, unpasteurized eggs. Restaurants should use pasteurized eggs in any recipe (such as Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing) that would result in consumption of raw or lightly cooked eggs.
  8. Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs should be avoided, especially by young children, elderly persons, and persons with weakened immune systems or debilitating illness.
  9. Consumers can consider buying and using pasteurized shell eggs, which are available for purchase from certain stores and suppliers.

How do I know if I have a Salmonella infection?

A person infected with Salmonella usually has a fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea beginning 12 to 72 hours after consuming a contaminated food or beverage. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without antibiotic treatment. However, the diarrhea can be severe, and the person may be ill enough to require hospitalization.

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