Is it safe to eat raw eggs? Because I’m a professional chef as well as a chicken keeper, I get asked this question a fair bit. The answer is … well, yes and no. It depends. To understand it better, we need to understand a little chicken anatomy.
The cause for concern over raw eggs is the likelihood of poop coming into contact with eggshells—in the nest box or inside the hen’s body. As we know, eggs and poop exit from the same place—the vent—and most of us have gathered the odd poop-streaked egg and not really done much more than give it a wipe and cook it up anyway, right? I don’t worry about it, and I don’t get sick.
A hen’s anatomy and her eggshells are wonders of engineering, with all sorts of safeguards designed to keep any developing chick healthy and free of salmonella. The bloom, or cuticle, is a coating the hen applies to the eggshell just before the egg makes its way out through the vent and before it can contact fecal matter either inside the vent or in the nest. Her natural bloom seals most of the pores, reducing moisture loss and preventing bacteria from getting inside.
However, in the U.S. and Canada, commercially produced eggs must by law be washed and sanitized with a mild bleach solution, removing the healthy, natural bloom. That’s why we need to keep grocery-store eggs in the refrigerator but can safely leave our own flock’s eggs on the counter. That’s also why backyard eggs are safe and clean, even if there is a bit of poop on the shell. Which leads me to another question I hear: Do you wash your backyard eggs? No, I do not. Washing eggs with water defeats the purpose of the bloom. A quick rub with a dry rag for the most egregious cases of cling-on-poop works fine for me.
Back to the original question: Is it safe to eat your own flock’s eggs raw? As a professional chef, I do it all the time. Culinary history is full of classic dishes made with raw eggs: omelette baveuse (wet and runny), mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing, beef tartare, eggnog, royal icing, some meringues and that singular joy of childhood, licking the beaters, dripping with raw cake batter.
In 2016, Canadian TV news program Market-place studied the health properties of conventional versuses pastured eggs and found that pastured eggs are higher in good omega fats and vitamins A, D and E. (See the results here: www.cbc.ca/marketplace/blog/test-results-eggs). Those findings are backed by a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. So we know they’re healthier, but are backyard or pastured eggs safer? Again, the answer is a slightly wishy-washy yes and no.
Salmonella is the biggest cause for concern, and there are two ways it gets onto and into eggs—yes, into. Salmonella can be present inside a hen’s reproductive tract and can be introduced into the egg before it gets its shell. It can also be introduced to the egg outside the hen. In both cases, keeping a clean and healthy flock is the best defense.
Diet and age also play a significant role. In an article titled Salmonella and Eggs: From Production to Plate, for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers Harriet Whiley and Kirstin Ross found that older hens fed a diet high in corn were more susceptible to salmonella contamination. The presence of rodents in the henhouse can also increase the chances of salmonella, via cross-contamination.
The article further states that numerous studies suggest that environmental sources present in free-range housing have a lower salmonella contamination rate compared with caged housing. A Belgian study found that 30 percent of dust and fecal samples collected from caged housing were positive for salmonella; whereas, less than 1 percent of dust and fecal samples collected from barn and free-range housing were positive for salmonella.
Hooray for free-ranging hens!
My conclusion? It’s a personal choice, but I will continue to eat eggs from my healthy flock any way I crave them: raw, runny or hard. If you’re still a bit squeamish about eating raw eggs, keep them in the refrigerator and you’ll be even safer.
Before-You-Eat: Here’s an Egg-Visory
A consumer advisory is required in many states when a raw or undercooked animal food is offered by a restaurant in a ready-to-eat form, including raw eggs in a Caesar salad, eggs cooked sunny-side up, and so on. It typically reads:
“Eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs or seafood poses a health risk to everyone, but especially to the elderly, young children under age 4, pregnant women and other highly susceptible individuals with compromised immune systems. The cooking of such animal foods reduces the risk of illness.”
Keep this in mind if you decide to consume raw eggs from your flock, and be safe. And if you’re ready to dive in, have a look at these recipes for sushi-style fish tartare with brûléed egg yolk and classic eggnog, which include raw eggs.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.