Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Food Safety

Today I'm going to write about the fun and exciting subject of food safety. Why? Well my 4 year old recently came down with a terrible illness, which turned out to be E Coli, and possibly the dreaded 0157. That still has not been concluded, but all evidence points in that direction. There is nothing more heart wrenching then to watch your child writhe in pain for several days and know that there is nothing you can do but let the cycle run its course, and pray. Fortunately, I can say she did not get the E Coli from my cooking. It was most likely contracted from our goats, after petting the new babies, being exposed to their fecal matter, then not properly washing her hands before eating. But, it could have been food related, and that was a concern because there were two other E Coli outbreaks within the same area in the last month. So being careful about your food is always a good idea.

Yesterday, the subject of eggs came up, and the safety of farm fresh ones. So I'll start with the subject of safety and eggs today.

First of all, what is the biggest concern of eggs? Salmonella. Not a fun food poisoning to get, and one that cannot be treated with antibiotics. So, if you have your own chickens, what can you do to prevent getting Salmonella, or any other food borne illness? That would require proper handling of the eggs, the chickens and their nests.

So, to wash or not to wash, that is the question. One of my co-workers use to dip her hens eggs in a bleach solution. Is that the right thing to do? I wonder, as I had always been told it's not a good idea to wash eggs as they are laid with a protective coat on them called "bloom" that helps them to last longer. You definitely want to clean any pooh or mud off of them, but as for the detergent and bleach washes, I'm still wondering if it's a good idea. Even the USDA site does not recommend washing the protective coat off. Factory farms must wash all of their eggs. They sand them and then coat them with a tasteless, edible mineral oil. You definitely do not wash eggs from the store. You want that mineral oil on them for preserving them.

But what about the ones from your backyard chickens? In my research I've found many different opinions on this. In the forums, most small time farmers say no to washing their eggs of anything but the dirt and pooh.

Here is what the Virginia Cooperative Extension recommends. Collect eggs in an easy to clean container. Never cool the eggs rapidly before they're cleaned, because the eggshell will contract and pull any dirt or bacteria on the surface deep into the pores when cooled. You want to try to keep the temperature as constant as possible until they are washed. They recommend that you wash the eggs as soon as you collect them, to limit the possibility of contamination and loss of quality. Wash the eggs with water 10 degrees warmer than the egg, which will make the egg contents swell and push the dirt away from the pores of the egg. If the eggs are extremely dirty, use a mild detergent approved for washing eggs. NEVER let eggs sit in water. Once the temperature equalizes the egg can absorb contaminants out of the water. Then cool and dry eggs quickly. Store large end up at 50 to 55 degrees F at 75% humidity.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has this to say:
For eggs you plan to sell, they should be either lightly sanded to remove small areas of dirt or carefully washed in potable water 20 degrees warmer than the egg temperature and less then 90 degrees F using only sanitizers approved for egg washing. Place in a colander and rinse without submersing in the solution. Dry immediately. Do not wash sanded eggs. A bleach solution of 1/2 oz household bleach in 1 gallon of water may be used. Place eggs in a clean cardboard box and store at or below 45 degrees.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln says, if you only have a few eggs, you can wash them at the sink with hot water. The hot water and the sanitizer should be as hot as the hands can tolerate. Make basins of detergent, rinse water and sanitizer, each containing 1 to 2 gallons of solution if you are doing a greater number of eggs. The temp should be 90 to 120 degrees. Wash eggs individually, but do not soak in the solutions. After the wash, rinse in clean water then dip in the sanitizer and set aside to dry. Promptly refrigerate dry eggs.

These recommendations have to do with people who intend to sell their eggs, or if you plan to share with friends and neighbors. What if they're just for your own personal consumption?

The book, Raising Poultry Successfully says to clean soiled eggs right after gathering and cool them as rapidly as possible. The Dirty eggs can be immersed in a pail containing detergent-sanitizer (temp 110 to 120 degrees) and then rinsed with clean water. Do not leave the eggs in the solution for more than a couple of minutes, then dry immediately. You can get these detergents at most farm stores. If there are only a few dirty eggs, you can wipe off the soiled spots with a cloth dampened with a detergent-sanitizer, then rinse in clean water. Some small flock owners use mild household detergents (unscented laundry detergent or dishwasher detergent). This process does remove the bloom, and there will be a loss of moisture from the egg through the shell and the quality of the egg will rapidly deteriorate. So, unless the eggs are going to be eaten immediately, the shell should be coated in an orderless, edible mineral oil. Many small flock owners do not clean their eggs until right before consumption.

Storey's Basic Country Skills has this to say about collecting eggs: First of all collect them often, which will prevent them from getting dirty or cracked. If you have a slightly dirty eggs you may brush it off or rub with a fine-grain sandpaper. A seriously dirty egg may be rinsed in water that is slightly warmer than the egg. It turns out that cooler water could force bacteria through the shell into the egg. Dry the eggs, place in a carton and refrigerate. Avoid getting into the habit of routinely washing the eggs. Water rinses off the natural bloom that helps preserve freshness.

So there you have it. How am I going to handle my eggs? I think I will follow the advice of Storey's Basic Country Skills. I'm most comfortable with that. It is what I have been doing all along, and it has worked fine. When I sell or give my eggs to others, I will continue to more thoroughly clean them as I have in the past. I usually use the detergent routine for those, but perhaps, from now on, they'll get a quick dip in a bleach solution, just to be extra safe.

When you get farm fresh eggs from friends or farmers markets, you may want to ask how they've been cleaned, and possibly do a quick dip in a bleach solution before you use them, just to be safe.

Now, go enjoy a good omelet!

PS. For sanitizers approved for eggs, check Fortuna Feed and Farm, Nilsens Feed in Ferndale or Eureka, The Farm Store out on Jacobs Avenue in Eureka, Three G's Hay and Grain in Arcata, or A & L Feed in McKinelyville.

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