Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Wash Eggs Part I: The Hen Comes First


In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.


It's part of an old riddle. The answer: an egg. Doesn't it sound just beautiful, just the sort of thing to tempt your appetite? I could enjoy some food that is pure and white, soft as silk, with crystal clear fountains, rich golden centers...you get the picture.

The idea of those 'marble walls as white as milk' streaked with dust and mud, feces or feathers, though? Less appealing.

Cleanliness in egg collection and packaging is far more important than a simple matter of appearances, of course. Most small scale producers have flocks much to small to fall under federal regulations for food safety, but it is still helpful to know them. State and local regulations vary widely, and egg producers of any scale should certainly read up on all the laws and regulations that may affect them.

Nonetheless, even the smallest scale producers should exercise care and strict adherence to cleanliness standards. This is not so easily accomplished, however. There are a large number of resources for the large scale egg producer to properly handle eggs. Small scale producers may have to use a bit more creativity and ingenuity. But what backyard farmer is not accustomed to that?

Washing eggs may be a bit tedious. I kid you not. Some folks don't think it should be done much at all. And for actual reasons, too, not just the fake 'efficiency' one I made up for not doing my breakfast dishes this morning. You see, before the eggs are laid, they are given a final coating called the bloom. This natural protective coating prevents dirt and microbes from entering the shell and harming the contents. Intense washing removes the bloom, leaving the eggs unprotected.

But the bloom by itself is not a perfect defense, especially if your eggs are coated in dirt. You'll have to wash them. You just don't want to have to do it too intensely. The best way to have healthy, clean eggs? Don't let them get dirty in the first place. Your hens will thank you for a clean environment and you'll be glad to cut back on scrubbing dirty eggs.

Part I of this two part post is about ways to care for your hens and keep the egg laying as tidy as possible. Think of it as Step 1 of Washing Eggs: Preventing Dirt. Next week I shall release Part II: Actually Washing Eggs For Realz.



Keep a clean house.
Before you can have a clean egg, you will need a clean chicken. Free range poultry do have more of a problem with dirty eggs; freedom of movement allows hens to come in contact with less desirable parts of the environment as well as the nice parts.

Minimize this by keeping your hens away from mud as much as possible and placing welcome mats (well, you could!), straw or gravel at coop entrances to clean the birds' feet as they enter. Do as much as you can to keep wild animals, such as birds or rodents, away from your hens and their coop. They will just party night and day, make a big mess and eat all your food, and I guarantee they will not wipe their feet when they come in.

Monitor your flock's health closely. It is no use spending time cleaning the outside of the egg if the inside isn't healthy. Look over the resource links at the bottom of this post for information about the best ways to clean coops, collect and dispose of litter and maintain disease free hens.

Laying nests are for egg laying only!
Check and clean nesting material frequently. If possible, try to prevent hens from sleeping in nest boxes, to keep them from defecating in the nest. You may do this by placing a door or grill in front of the nest at night. Give the hens lots of places to roost at night instead, and keep their perches higher than their nests. Hens like to sleep as high up as they can get.

Have you ever heard the phrase 'stealing her nest'? It refers to a hen who disdains whatever nests have been provided and finds a place of her own choosing to lay her eggs. You would not believe the creativity and craftiness that some hens display in searching out places to lay their eggs (Side Note: I know some of you have great stories on this topic, and I want to hear them--please share them in the comments!).

This may be less than ideal from a cleanliness perspective, so try to provide sufficient attractive nests for the hens. They prefer quiet, darkened areas. Do not crowd hens into too few nests--no more than 4 or 5 hens per nest. Physically place them in the nest in the morning until they become comfortable with them, if you have to. Some people find it helpful to place false eggs--ceramic, stone or even golf balls--in the nest to encourage further use.

Collect eggs often.
You will need to gather the eggs frequently, as well, reducing the chances of broken eggs. A broken egg in a nest means not only the loss of that particular egg, but will also dirty other eggs, hens and nesting material. Dried egg is hard to scrub off your breakfast dishes. How much more so when you're scrubbing a fragile egg!

Egg collection is best done three times per day. Most eggs are laid in the first hours after dawn. Collect eggs twice in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Better still is to consider 'roll-away' nests with sloping floors. These allow the eggs to roll away to a collection area as soon as they are laid.

Do not leave eggs sitting around too long.
Temperature and time are possibly the two most important factors to safe egg handling. Eggs should be gathered, cleaned and packed within a week of being laid, and the sooner, the better. Indeed, freshness is one of the main reasons for choosing to buy from a small, local producer, or for keeping your own backyard hens, so it hardly makes sense to leaving your eggs sitting around your hen house for long periods of time!

Keep eggs cool and dry.
Eggs left sitting at room temperature lose about one quality grade per day. It is important not to leave eggs sitting in an especially warm environment, as well. Fertile eggs may start to develop embryos quite quickly if the temperature is higher than 85° F. Keep your eggs in a cool, dry environment. While you are waiting to wash and pack them, hold your eggs at about 60° F and 70% humidity, preferably in a container that allows air circulation.

Egg temperatures should be kept as constant as possible before eggs are washed to prevent condensation forming on the shell. Moisture on egg shells provides an entry for bacteria and other harmful bugs. Once they are washed, your eggs will need to be refrigerated properly (45° F or less) right away. Remember, they may no longer have their natural protective coating.

For wash them you still must do. Despite all your best precautions, despite maintaining a gleaming hen house and grabbing eggs before they even hit the nest, you will still have dirty eggs that need washed. Part II is coming shortly to discuss the mechanics of actually washing the eggs.

Would you have ever thought that washing eggs should be so complicated as to require a two part post? I didn't when I started writing this! Even so, I have barely gleaned the surface of food safety and cleanliness considerations. Please check out some of these amazing resources to learn more about HACCP plans, biosecurity, poultry disease prevention, government regulation, certified organic regulations and more:

Excellent Articles:
Small-Scale Egg Handling
A Guide to On-Farm Processing for Organic Producers: Table Eggs
Optimum Egg Quality: A Practical Approach

Schools and Universities:
University of Minnesota Poultry U Resource List
Purdue University: Controlling Food Safety Using the HACCP Approach and Prerequisite Programs

Government Resources:
FDA Egg Safety
FDA Title 21, Parts 170-190, includes food safe substances approved for use as cleaners and detergents, generally recognized and regulated food additives.
USDA: Regulations Governing the Inspection of Eggs
USDA Fact Sheets: Shell Eggs from Farm to Table
Organic Materials Review Institute

2 comments:

  1. People with small flocks should keep a kitty litter scoop handy. I use it to clean out the nesting boxes. I quick flick does the trick. A minute of prevention keeps those eggs clean!
    Terry at hencam.com

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  2. Great idea, Terry! I've also heard recommended placing a high-sided tray below perches, with a wire grill over top, so birds don't walk through the mess.

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