The Great Egg Challenge of 2010

Men in white coats. I'm getting out of here.

Men in white coats. I'm getting out of here.

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.

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  1. Well, six eggs isn’t really a viable sample ( as you stated) so I am not sure what your objective is. Even if your eggs come back “salmonella free” that doesn’t mean your flock is salmonella free. Second, the fact that you and your partner (and allegedly anyone else who has eaten your eggs ) haven’t become ill is also not proof that your flock is salmonella free either. Many people consume contaminated food on a regular basis and do not become ill because their own immune system is sufficient to combat the bacteria. In addition, you cannot be completely sure that someone who has eaten your eggs hasn’t become ill – because of the lag time between exposure and symptoms and similarities between salmonella and many common stomach ailments, it is virtually impossible to ascertain without blood work.

  2. leslie land says:

    Dare I say I hope it turns out your eggs DO have some salmonella? That’s because I’d love to know:

    1. Whether the count per egg is comparable to that of the tainted industrial variety (Might not be possible to measure; I don’t know if the tainted ones are/were consistent in this regard).

    2. Whether the strain of salmonella in your eggs is the same as the strain in the recalled eggs.

    3. Whether your eggs are otherwise the same as the industrial ones. Do they for instance contain more antioxidants, competing (beneficent) bacteria or something else that might be a salmonella antagonist, slowing its rate of growth?

    4. Whether the Hygiene Hypothesis is relevant. If you are getting regular very small doses of salmonella, doses that don’t produce recognizable symptoms, are you building up a tolerance?

    Look forward to the next thrilling installment; thanks so much for doing this!


  3. Barry says:

    Nancy and Leslie.

    Thanks. All good points. I will try to contact some “experts” who might provide answers. Much appreciated.


  4. Drew says:

    As a beneficiary of eggs from “The Ladies,” as my wife and kids and I call Barry’s hens, I can personally attest that we often disregard safe preparation techniques (for example, as I write this I’m polishing off leftover cookie batter with raw egg in it- sadly to say, this is not the first time). Since first receiving eggs from “The Ladies” near the beginning of summer or so, no one in this household has experienced the significant GI symptoms expected of salmonellosis.

    Of course, this is anecdotal rather than scientific evidence. But even if the tests come back positive for any serotype of Salmonella (there are over 2,500 identified Salmonella serotypes, according to WHO), I’d still rather take my chances with eggs from chickens that I can see live in clean, healthy conditions versus the fly-and-maggot ridden conditions in factory farms such as the two that produced the 500,000,000 eggs involved in the recall.
    ( )

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  1. Why Free-Range Hens Might be Less Susceptible to Salmonella than Their Factory-Farmed Sisters: Results from the Great Egg Challenge of 2010

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