When grocery shopping in America, you can always expect to find eggs in the refrigerated section at the supermarket. While this might seem like a “no duh” statement, this isn’t the case in most other countries.
The United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Scandinavia are the only countries where eggs are kept cold before and after purchase. Why and how can other countries have their eggs in, say, the baking aisle? Are they safe to eat?
The division comes down to how eggs are prepped before being put in cartons. In the United States, USDA and FDA regulation requires all eggs go through a cleaning process to sanitize and remove any potential pathogens clinging to the outer shell. However, this cleaning process also removes the cuticle or bloom of the egg, which is a naturally created film that seals the shell (and ideally keeps bacteria out).
Once the cuticle is removed, there is no longer any kind of protective barrier on the shell which means washed eggs must be refrigerated to prevent bacteria growth.
Other countries have come to the opposite conclusion for egg safety. Most European and Asian countries do not wash their eggs, and therefore do not need to keep them refrigerated, believing the natural barrier of the cuticle is the safest way to keep bacteria at bay. In some countries like Ireland, it’s actually illegal to wash certain grades of eggs.
The washing debate actually goes back decades to when most people were washing eggs, but with no kind of standard or knowledge about the process. Bad batches of washed eggs caused a stink (ha, get it?) in Australia, turning them off to the process entirely. Whereas in the United States, the washing process got more specific and regulated during the 1970s. Japan turned towards the washing process after a terrible outbreak of salmonella in the 1990s.
To Wash Or Not To Wash
As Americans, we have always heard the warning calls surrounding eggs—watch for runny yolks or improperly cooled cartons, lest you want to get the dreaded salmonella. Now, of course, salmonella is a serious illness, but which method for eggs works best?
According to the FDA, each year there are about 79,000 cases of foodborne illness and 30 deaths caused by salmonella contaminated eggs. That’s…a lot of cases. In the UK, there have been about 100 salmonella illnesses related to eggs from 2017 to 2020, with about 40 specifically in 2020. That’s, uh, a lot less that the number of cases we see here in the United States.
Egg washing (or lack thereof) isn’t the only method of protection. In the UK, there is a salmonella vaccination mandate for all commercial laying hens. Since its introduction, infections have dropped drastically. The United States doesn’t have a mandate, but it’s estimated a majority of egg producers use the vaccine.
Washing, not washing, as well using vaccinations are all successful methods for preventing bacterial infections.