My cousin Isabelle visited during the spring for the first time in decades. She is born and bred French (my great-grandmother left for the Americas whereas her relatives stayed), so we don’t often get to see each other. The times we do spend together have been joyous, starting with childhood mischief and then tween adventures. During this visit we spent time evaluating our lives and comparing notes, including, as it turns out, the subject of egg storage and sales, and how things differ in the U.S. and Europe.
Isabelle lives in Montpellier, home to the stunning Université de Montpellier, so she wanted to tour the local university town of Ann Arbor. Another cultural comparison she insisted on was a visit to our supermarket. In suburban France as a pre-teen, I remember being awed into silence by the hypermarchés there. They were all so cavernous, carrying a selection so broad as to include wine, produce, sandals and slate boards. Over time I’ve watched U.S. markets such as Meijer and Kroger expand their offerings and become far more European in this regard.
Yet Isabelle pointed out a remaining difference, though: how safety standards lead to differing approaches to egg storage and sales. Sure, she may have nodded her approval at the seafood and butchery departments and expressed her delight with the olive oil and vinegar selections. And she couldn’t quite hide her disdain at the cheese counter. Her biggest shock, however, occurred in the dairy department.
“Your eggs are sold this way!?” she exclaimed.
Isabelle was absolutely floored. She couldn’t resist opening carton after carton and examining several eggs up close, feeling their chill upon her cheek and inspecting their shells. She even went so far as to sniff several. I’m sure shoppers must have thought she had some fetish over eggs or egg storage, but I knew the reason behind Isabelle’s behavior.
Egg Storage & Sales In Europe
I spent most of my seventh year living with Isabelle’s family in Melun, 25 miles outside of Paris. The culture shock I experienced attending school there was rivaled only by shopping for groceries. We didn’t cruise the hypermarché with shiny carts; our visits there were infrequent. Instead, we headed to the center of town, where stalls laden with foodstuffs lined the streets. Aunt Judith would lead us on a grand tour as she determined who had the freshest offerings and best bargains that day. I marveled at fresh milk, sold on ice in returnable glass bottles; at slaughtered chickens and ducks, hanging unplucked by their legs; at mountains of sugar cubes, weighed on small silver scales, then packed into tiny paper sacks.
And eggs? There were oceans of eggs! White eggs, tan eggs, dark chocolate-brown eggs. I’d never seen anything but white eggs at our supermarket. I’d also never seen eggs sold unrefrigerated. Sellers simply displayed their eggs in flats, and customers would select which eggs they wanted, packing them not into styrofoam cartons but paper or mesh bags. My second surprise came when we unloaded our grocery bags: the eggs were dirty. Bits of feather and straw clung to some shells, while flecks of dirt coated others. None of this bothered Aunt Judith. She just took them from their bag and placed them in a special tray—on her kitchen counter! This method of egg storage floored me. She didn’t put them into her refrigerator’s egg tray. She didn’t even clean them until she needed them. It was mind boggling.
European Safety Standards Differ
As an egg farmer, I now understand why those French market stalls kept their eggs unwashed and at room temperature: Their eggs were protected by nature. Just before a hen lays an egg, she adds a protective coating called a bloom or cuticle to the egg to seal the porous shell. The bloom greatly reduces moisture loss within the egg, keeping the insides fresher for a longer period of time. More importantly, the bloom helps prevent bacteria from penetrating the eggshell. A newly laid, unwashed egg with its bloom intact can stay fresh at room temperature for as long as 28 days, after which it should be discarded.
I also now understand why the French egg sellers didn’t chill their eggs. Without electricity at their street stalls, refrigerated eggs would soon warm up and develop condensation on their shells, inviting bacteria to permeate the shells’ pores. The egg-handling practices of those French sellers years ago is now law throughout the European Union. Commission Regulation (EC) No 589/2008 states that eggs “should not be refrigerated before sale to the final consumer.” The regulation also states that “eggs should not be washed because of the potential damage to the physical barriers, such as the cuticle, which can occur during or after washing. Such damage may favour trans-shell contamination with bacteria and moisture loss and thereby increase the risk to consumers.”
U.S. Mandates Cleaning & Refrigeration
Isabelle’s bewildered behavior upon encountering American supermarket eggs is understandable: Commercial eggs have been sanitized in the name of public safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that eggs sold commercially to consumers must be washed in water at a temperature at least 20 degrees hotter than the egg itself, then rinsed in a solution of one teaspoon liquid chlorine bleach per half cup of water. This wash-and-rinse requirement removes bacteria such as Salmonella enteritidis from the surface of the egg, but it also removes the protective bloom. The sanitized eggs must then be thoroughly dried to prevent pathogens such as Salmonella from entering the egg through the moisture on its shell pores. A light coating of mineral oil is often applied to commercial eggs to replace the bloom and seal the pores. Thus sanitized and treated, commercially produced eggs have a shelf life of approximately two months if properly stored at 35 degrees F to 40 degrees F in the supermarket or your refrigerator.
Isabelle never got around to trying storebought eggs during her stay; with our girls happily producing, there was no need to purchase a commercial dozen. We were able to offer Isabelle eggs the way she knew them: fresh from the hen, bloom intact and full of flavor. We wouldn’t have them any other way.