This has relaunched the debate over whether eggs from smaller, organic farms are safer.
Organic farmers argue that the conditions under which large agribusiness raises and houses chickens create an environment where bacteria can spread more easily. The birds are often kept in cages that are stacked closely next to and on top of each other
According to Live Science:
“‘The smaller the farm is, the lower the likeliness of Salmonella,’ said infectious disease specialist William Schaffner ... ‘The general thinking is that larger chicken farms are much more difficult to keep clean, and this makes it easier to transmit Salmonella.’”
The latest salmonella scare, which prompted the recall of over half a billion eggs from two Iowa farms, has many Americans thinking twice when they walk down the egg aisle at their supermarket.
Aside from the labels, which range from “cage-free” and “organic” to “natural” and “Kosher,” or the color of the shell, the eggs appear virtually identical. So how can you tell which eggs are the “safe” ones and which might make you sick?
You can’t, at least not by looking at them.
An egg contaminated with salmonella and one that’s not may appear identical on the outside. This is why finding truly safe, healthier eggs requires choosing eggs not on looks alone, but rather based on where they came from.
So are Organic Eggs the Answer?
Eggs from large flocks (30,000 birds or more) and caged hens have many times more salmonella bacteria than eggs from smaller, organically fed, free-range flocks.
This is a proven fact.
One study even found that while more than 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, this dropped to just over 4 percent for organic flocks. The highest prevalence of salmonella occurred in the largest flocks (30,000 birds or more), which contained over four times the average level of salmonella found in smaller flocks.
About 95 percent of the eggs produced in the United States come from gigantic egg factories housing millions of hens under one roof. There are currently about 245 U.S. egg companies with flocks of 75,000 or more, and, of these 245 companies, 60 have at least 1 million laying hens, and 12 have more than 5 million!
These are the factories you want to avoid purchasing your eggs from, and since they make up the bulk of eggs sold in the United States, this means finding an alternative source.
Organic flocks are typically much smaller than the massive commercial flocks where bacteria flourish, which is part of the reason why eggs from truly organic, free-range chickens are FAR less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as salmonella.
Their nutrient content is also much higher than commercially raised eggs, which is most likely the result of the differences in diet between organic free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens.
So in choosing between organic and non-organic supermarket eggs, the organic version is clearly the superior choice from a contamination perspective.
That said, I’d like to be able to say that picking up a carton of organic eggs from your supermarket will assure you that your eggs will be safe. But it’s not really that simple.
Why You Need to be Wary of Organic Supermarket Eggs
Eggs from organic chickens will typically be raised in much more sanitary, humane conditions than commercial eggs … but have you ever thought about what happens to these eggs AFTER they are collected?
There are actually vast differences in how eggs are processed and handled, even under the "certified organic" label, and the cleaning process the eggs go through can seriously compromise their quality.
It is standard industry practice to wash chicken eggs, often using a chlorine bath. Depending on the method of washing, the egg’s outer protective cuticle can be easily damaged. This leaves your eggs vulnerable to contamination and faster spoilage.
The egg industry knows this, so to replace the cuticle that 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 all eggs undergo oiling, but many larger producers do, particularly if they are preparing their eggs for long-distance shipment and storage.
Like your skin, what's put ON your egg goes INTO your egg. Meaning, whatever the eggshell comes into contact with can cross over its semi-permeable shell membrane and end up in your breakfast eggs, from chlorine to mineral oil to dish soap -- to salmonella.
I think it is unlikely that an organic farmer would choose to use mineral oil or other harmful substances when cleaning and processing eggs, but the regulations are so variable from state to state, and the national guidelines so nebulous, that there is lots of wiggle room.
So the truth is that unless you know where your eggs came from, you can’t be sure what process your eggs have gone through.
If You Want to Know if Your Eggs are Safe, Ask the Farmer!
There are numerous factors that come into play when assessing the likely safety, or lack thereof, of any given egg:
- How big was the chicken flock it came from?
- What were the hens fed and where did the feed come from?
- Did the chickens have regular access to the outdoors?
- Were the hens caged and raised in crowded conditions?
- Were the eggs washed in chlorine or another chemical, or coated with mineral oil?
Obviously you cannot get the answers to any of these questions by looking at the egg, or even reading the label on the carton. The only person who truly knows these answers is the farmer, and this is why I recommend you buy locally and get to know a reputable farmer in your area.
In other words, the best way to find safe, salmonella-free eggs is to bypass your supermarket altogether. That’s right! The best, safest and most nutritious eggs cannot be found in a grocery store -- they can be found locally, from a small farmer you get to know and trust.
Fortunately, finding high-quality organic, locally produced eggs is relatively easy, as virtually every rural area has small farmers with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food store is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources.
Farmers markets are another great way to meet the people who produce food in your area. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Better yet, visit the farm directly and ask for a tour. If they have nothing to hide, they should be eager to show you their operation.
Ideally, the chickens should be allowed outside and eat insects. If you find these eggs the yolks will be bright orange due to the increased nutrients. Your egg farmer should also be paying attention to proper nutrition, clean water, adequate housing space, and good ventilation to reduce stress on the hens and support their immunity.
About the only time I purchase eggs from a grocery store is when I am traveling or for some reason I miss my local egg pickup. When you use eggs from local sources, the risk of salmonella is very small.
In fact, I have been consuming locally raised eggs raw, which is their most nutritional state, for many years with absolutely positive benefits to my health. The CDC and other public health organizations will advise you to thoroughly cook your eggs to lower the risk of salmonella and make them “safe,” but eating eggs thoroughly cooked is not advantageous to your health.
You are better off getting eggs from only high-quality sources, which are the ones that will be safe from the get-go, than purchasing “iffy” eggs from the supermarket that have to be hard-boiled before they’re safe to eat.
The bottom line is this: eggs from local farmers are nearly always superior, in both nutrition and in safety, to those found at your supermarket.
Chickens are a Great Nutritional Treasure
All of this salmonella talk means chickens have been receiving a bad rap in recent months, which is entirely unfair. The skill of raising chickens has been removed from public knowledge, and chickens are now portrayed as stupid, filthy animals riddled with disease that should be hidden in dark warehouses, out of public sight.
Gone is the knowledge that chickens (and their eggs) will thrive and be clean and healthy if provided basic access to the ground for bathing and scratching, access to clean water, and a safe roost to fly up to at night.
There is actually much more to chickens and their significant role in U.S. history than you might think … so much so that I recently did a special report on this very topic. If you have any interest in chickens or eggs, I highly recommend you read it now. In fact, even if you don’t think you do, I suspect you’ll find the report eye opening, to say the least.
Lastly, if you are considering raising your own chickens, which may very well be the absolute best way to secure safe eggs for you and your family, you can find some practical tips in the report as well.