In this edition of Buncombe County’s Ask a Health Inspector series, Eric writes in with a question about egg recalls. Buncombe County Health & Human Services’ Jason Masters has the answer.
Q: What’s the deal with that whole recall thing? I’ve got chickens and I only eat eggs that come from my backyard. Should I be worried? What are some things I should be concerned about as a small chicken farmer? – Eric
A: Hey Eric, really great question. We have heard a lot about the recent egg recall lately, and for good reason. In a nutshell (*egg shell*?), federal inspectors found pretty gruesome conditions at a large commercial egg farm in North Carolina. When I say large, I’m talking about 2.3 MILLION eggs a day. That’s a big omelet. Some of the violations noted in federal inspectors reports include: Dead and live rodents, accumulation of water on floors (doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in this kind of facility, where large amounts of manure are present, standing water provides a nice petri dish for pathogens to grow and multiply), water on equipment, employees being less than savory with their personal hygiene, and employees not following standard operating procedures. Now, if you are a regular reader of my articles, you are probably pretty familiar with the risk based inspection. The risk based inspection is what your local health inspectors conduct when they evaluate and grade a restaurant, and federal inspections are similar in that they focus on factors that are more likely to contribute to illness before they look at other things like floors, walls, and ceilings.
So the egg recall was due, largely, to the sanitation (or lack of) of the facility and mishandling of eggs and equipment by employees, resulting in a 206 million egg recall. Now, I’m not trying to be *neggative* here, but that’s a lot of bad eggs. Of course, Salmonella is the organism of concern here, and with an egg farm, it only needs an opportunity to move from the chickens to equipment to employees and right back to the eggs. Salmonella causes the appropriately named disease, salmonellosis, and just so you don’t have the check your*hencyclopedia*, salmonellosis causes the usual flu like symptoms associated with food borne illness and is particularly harmful to the young and elderly. Usually, the only *tweetment* needed is fluids to avoid dehydration. As of this writing, 35 people have been affected in 9 states. Several of those 35 have been hospitalized, but so far, none have died. “So Jason…” you are probably asking, “…if salmonella is already around chickens and eggs, why is this recall in place?” Well that’s a good point. Let’s talk about that for second. Salmonella is naturally occurring and lives in the intestinal tracts of birds, and is transmitted through feces. Now I’m not a chicken farmer, but it’s pretty easy to realize that eggs move through the same passageway feces moves through. I’m not going to get into the biology of things here, but salmonella can also live in the ovaries of chickens, so that sometimes, even as the egg is being formed, it can become contaminated. There are several safety procedures in place at large farms. The USDA requires that the eggs be washed to remove fecal material before packaging. This helps to ensure that the fecal material carrying the bacteria can be removed from the egg before being presented to the consumer. The FDA requires that a pest control plan be put into place as well as biosecurity measures that would limit the visitors to the facility, and would also prevent employees from taking birds home with them, (and subsequently naming them things like, “Hen Solo”, and “Cluck Norris”). The issue here is that even after all the safety procedures are in place, if you let a little rat climb across your egg cartons or packaging material, or say an employee has an itch in an area that may not be the cleanest, and then doesn’t wash his hands, well, you’ve just re-contaminated your whole supply.
So why can’t you just cook the bejesus out of these things and avoid the recall problem altogether? Well, maybe you could, but that means that you would have to make no mistakes…I’m talking zero (0) mistakes while handling and preparing these eggs. You would have to make sure you cooked them to at least 160 degrees every time, and the possibility of cross contamination here is insanely high! Everywhere you put those eggs, you literally (not figuratively) have placed salmonella. I’m talking, hands, counter, keys, car seat, everything! Now I believe you when you say that your kitchen is cleaner than any restaurant in town, and you should ALWAYS treat raw proteins like they are infected with everything known to man, but the fact remains that the CDC estimates that only one in 20,000 eggs is INTERNALLY contaminated with salmonella. Notice, how I put that INTERNALLY in big letters. That’s because I want you to understand that this recall is due to salmonella on the outside of the shell. My point is, that even though you have a super clean Gordon Ramsey kitchen, the eggs themselves are already pretty safe most of the time due to the precautions by the FDA and the USDA. But if you KNEW that those eggs had been scientifically proven to have salmonella all over them, wouldn’t it just be easier to throw them away and buy some new ones? Wouldn’t even be a question at my house. I’d throw eggs away like it was my job if I knew there was salmonella creepily crawling all over them.
So let’s talk about some issues that can occur on small farms, and why you should at least be aware of some conditions before buying those eggs that were advertised on the sign nailed to the light post beside the stop sign with the red painted letters that say “FRESH EGGS, $4.99, THIS-A-WAY –>”.
In 2017, there were 1,120 cases of salmonella across 48 states that were found to be directly associated with backyard chicken flocks. Now remember, in large egg processing facilities, safety precautions are in effect to assure that eggs are maintained in good, safe condition. Of course, as noted above, if those precautions are ignored, then havoc can ensue. How many precautions do you think Bubbas Egg Farm has in place? I can pretty conclusively tell you that Bubba has zero precautions in place. I realize that Bubba’s chickens are the prettiest, nicest, birds you have ever seen, and they have the cutest names like Ruth Bader Hens-burg, and Nancy Reag-hen, but the fact remains that Bubba is going out there, stomping through the mud and manure, shoo-ing those birds out of the way, grabbing a dozen or so eggs with those big mitts of his, and chunking them down in an old Earth Fare egg carton with the label half torn off, and bringing them back in to you, the customer. He is going to tell you he’s been in the bird “bid-ness” for 35 years and has never been sick, and that “heck, a little chicken manure makes you grow up good and strong”. Let me tell you right now, chicken manure will NOT make you grow up good and strong. Do yourself a favor, and take a look around at the chickens before you make a purchase. (Watch your kids! Don’t let them go over there and snuggle up with Meryl Cheep and Hennifer Lopez!) Is their coop neat and clean? Are the birds well taken care of? Is there manure all over the place? Is Bubba washing his hands? Are the eggs collected on a regular basis? If you do decide to take some money out of your savings or *chicken account* and make a purchase, take your eggs home and brush them off a little if needed. Don’t wash them…cold water can make the shells contract and pull bacteria inside the egg. Don’t try to keep a cracked egg. Throw it away. And finally, remember to cook your eggs thoroughly.
Salmonellosis is no yolk…
Now to end, a few chicken jokes:
-What do you call a coop full of jumping chickens?
–Poultry in motion
-Why did the chicken cross the road?
–To get to the other side (of the road)
-Why did the chicken cross the road?
–To get to the other side (in a metaphysical sense, the other side of life.)
-What do you call a ghost chicken?
-Why does a chicken coop have 2 doors?
–Because if it had 4 doors, it would be a chicken sedan.
Ask a Health Inspector is a series by Buncombe County. Please visit www.buncombecounty.org for additional information.