Last week, a reader who goes by the name Ploughman issued a challenge to me. “You might want to have your small flock [of laying hens] tested just to see what strain(s) of salmonella they are carrying. You might be surprised,” he wrote.
Ploughman, your challenge is accepted. I shipped six of my eggs to EMSL Analytical, Inc. in Cinnamminson, NJ, last Thursday. (You can imagine the looks I got when I walked into the local UPS Store and asked them to bubble wrap and overnight six eggs to New Jersey.) The results will be back later this week.
Here’s a little background on what I’m calling the Great Egg Challenge of 2010. In a recent post, I made the claim that industrial agriculture was to blame the vast majority of foodborne illness outbreaks in this country—Salmonella in eggs and peanut butter, E. coli in ground beef and spinach. Virtually no small farmers have poisoned their customers, even though they may be harmed by regulations in the pending Food Safety Act.
As an admittedly unscientific example, I cited my own 12-hen free-ranging flock. At night they are housed in a former stable. During the day they peck around the yard. They are constantly exposed to wild birds, flies, and manure, along with the occasional rodent—all potential vectors for salmonella.
But in the eight years I have kept chickens, my eggs have sickened no one.
As we await the verdict from the lab, two scenarios pass through my mind. In one, the tests come back negative, in which case I will have to talk to experts to see why my birds are salmonella—free even though they encounter potential sources of the disease all the time. Should the result be positive, I am going to have to answer why I am not constantly doubled over with stomach cramps, or worse. Ploughman speculated that it might have been because we prepare our eggs safely. I like to think so, but by health department standards we do not. I often have two for breakfast sunny side up (horrors!), and my partner likes hers soft-boiled (even worse horrors!).
But the Great Egg Challenge has already produced one interesting result. To test the eggs, the lab charged me only $33. So here’s a suggestion to the FDA: Require all large producers to test their eggs on a regular basis. If I can afford it, so can they.