Salmonella and Farm Eggs: What’s the Risk of Getting Sick?

Are you concerned that your flock's eggs might contain Salmonella? I sought expert sources for safety guidelines and facts about farm vs. store-bought eggs.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Peretz Partensky/Flickr

A microflock owner informed me several weeks ago that she stopped selling and giving away her hens’ eggs. “People were getting sick,” she explained. “Our eggs didn’t provide them with the immunity they get from store eggs.” I did my best to conceal my reaction, but her explanation astonished me. While I’m well aware that farm eggs can become contaminated with Salmonella, I’d never heard that store-bought eggs provide immunity against the illness. So I sought expert sources about the safety of farm-fresh eggs vs. those bought in a supermarket with regard to Salmonella (pictured above). Here’s what I learned.

How to Safely Handle Your Hens’ Eggs

I already knew it’s uncommon for eggs to transmit Salmonella. An estimated one in every 20,000 eggs is contaminated with Salmonella, according to a physician and food-safety consultant writing for Forbes, as compared with approximately one quarter of all cut chicken parts sold in stores, according to a 2016 estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now, this doesn’t mean you should indulge in a tub of raw cookie dough, which contains raw eggs. It does mean to closely follow these safety practices when handling your hens’ eggs.

  1. Keep your coop clean. Poultry droppings can contain live Salmonella, and the germs can contaminate any place the chickens frequent, including nestboxes. Clean eggs can become contaminated with Salmonella when they contact poultry droppings.
  2. Collect eggs frequently. The longer an egg sits in a nestbox, the greater the possibility that it can become dirty.
  3. Do not wash your eggs. Remove any dirt or residue with a cloth or ultra-fine sandpaper. Washing with cold water can result in bacteria passing through the shell’s pores and into the egg.
  4. Throw away cracked eggs. Bacteria can pass through a damaged eggshell, contaminating the egg.

Are Store-Bought Eggs Safer?

The notion of egg-granted immunity was quickly clarified for me by Dr. Richard “Mick” Fulton, a diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians with 30 years’ experience in poultry pathology and medicine. Store-bought eggs don’t provide immunity to those who eat them, Fulton explained, but they are considered safer to eat than farm eggs.

“All commercial egg production is monitored for Salmonella entertitidis,” he noted. “Farms with more than 3,000 hens are required [by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to participate in the program. The eggs produced by commercial egg farms are candled to see what is inside of the egg, washed and sanitized prior to being put in egg cartons. The eggs are never touched by human hands.”

So if there is something bad inside of an egg, that egg doesn’t get sold in stores, Fulton said. The same is not true for farm eggs.

How to Safely Consume Eggs

Regardless of whether an egg is farm fresh or store-bought, you should take precautions prior to consumption to avoid getting sick from Salmonella. Children younger than 5 years of age, adults 65 years old and up, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to Salmonella infection.

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“These individuals should only eat thoroughly cooked eggs with a temperature of 165 degrees,” said Fulton.

When dining out, check restaurant menu for notations about which items contain raw or undercooked eggs, as these may contain Salmonella. Finally, always wash your hands after handling eggs—and inform your farm-egg customers to do the same.

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