Sunday, March 10, 2013

Farm-fresh eggs: To wash or not to wash

Nice clean eggs, ready to be weighed and packed.

I would not have believed how much strong feeling this particular subject stirs up. Some people assert that eggs should always be washed, preferably sanitized too. Others insist that any washing or cleaning is somehow detrimental to the quality of the egg.

If I tell you what I think, will you promise not to send me nasty e-mails or (horror of horrors) un-friend me on Facebook? Okay, here goes. First let me say that since we got our egg dealer's license in 2008, we have been obliged to follow the guidelines of the Washington State Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Program. I have also done a lot of research on this subject, and I must say I think the WSDA's guidelines are quite sensible.

Because eggs are perishable, and under certain circumstances, subject to bacterial infection, the idea is to collect, clean, dry and refrigerate them as quickly as possible. We use warm water and an old soft toothbrush to clean them. The water should be warmer than the eggs. Why? Because the shell of an egg is porous. The theory is, if there is mud or chicken poop or whatever on the egg shell, and you wash the egg in cold water, the contents of the egg will shrink away from the shell, bringing with it anything lingering on the outside of the shell. Since some eggs have just been laid when they are picked up, and a hen's body temperature is 103°F, we try for a wash-water temperature of around 110°F.

But, you never-wash-an-egg advocates are shouting, washing the egg removes the "bloom!" I know, I know. And I am going to take my social-networking life in my hands and ask you, "So what?"

The "bloom," as I understand it, is some kind of coating that is applied to the outside of the egg's shell right before it exits the hen's body. I have occasionally picked up an egg that has been so freshly laid that it is still wet; presumably this is the "bloom." The argument I always hear about the "bloom" is that removing it results in a shorter shelf life for the egg. First of all, unless that coating is somehow completely sealing the entire eggshell, I don't see how this can be true. Remember that the shell is porous; probably if it was coated thickly with wax or something, the contents of the egg wouldn't evaporate. I don't know what the makeup of the "bloom" is, but I doubt it is actually sealing the egg to that extent. 

And frankly, if simple washing in warm water is enough to remove it, how well do you really think it's sealing the egg shell?

In addition, we deliver our eggs several times a week to our customers. We know they are being consumed when they are quite fresh. So honestly, shelf life is of no real concern to us.

Even if we weren't subject to the WSDA requirements, we would still be cleaning our eggs. Occasionally I see an egg that is so clean that I don't bother washing it. This is perfectly acceptable under WSDA rules. However, I rarely find an egg to be so pristine that it can't be improved by at least a light cleaning. I can see no advantage in leaving mud, chicken poop or bedding stuck to an egg, for fear of compromising the "bloom." And since we are talking food safety here, honestly now, why take chances?

Monday, March 4, 2013

I was going to call it "The Sustainably-Raised Egg and I," but...

What can I say. I've never been very good at coming up with names for things.

However, it is now official: my first book, "Pure Poultry: Living well with heritage chickens, turkeys and ducks," is on its way to being published! The manuscript is now in the capable hands of New Society Publishers, a British Columbia-based company which specializes in "Tools for a world of change, books to build a new society." They have an impressive book list. Take a few minutes to check it out on their web site.

Have you read Betty MacDonald's 1945 classic "The Egg and I"? It's the hilarious tale of how Betty, at age 18, marries Bob, a man 13 years older, whose dream is to run a chicken ranch. He buys an off-grid piece of property in the Chimacum valley, not far from Port Townsend, WA. It's quite an adjustment for Betty, who isn't nearly as thrilled as Bob at having no electricity or running water in the house. She perseveres, though, having been raised to believe that if her husband can do what he really wants to in life, he will be happy and therefore she will be happy too.

I recently re-read The Egg and I, while I was in the middle of revising the first draft of Pure Poultry. This time, somehow I noticed things about Betty and Bob's experiences that closely paralleled those of David and I. Our farm is off the grid. It's located only about a 45-minute drive from the Chimacum valley. We're surrounded by the beautiful Olympic Mountains. Bob was certainly more knowledgeable about poultry than we were when we got started, but still, like us, he evidently had plenty to learn.

Betty, who died in 1958 at the age of 49, was a very witty writer. Her humor reminds me a lot of Erma Bombeck, whose books I have loved for years. Although she has many moments of feeling lonely on their isolated ranch, Betty has a way of describing the mountains, trees and even the clouds as if they were living things. I love her use of language.

We don't have colorful neighbors like Ma and Pa Kettle here, and our egg operation is tiny compared with Betty and Bob's. Still, there is plenty of humor and real-life experience in Pure Poultry. We certainly share some of the challenges of living off the grid, although I'm thankful to say that our wood stoves don't misbehave like "Stove" in The Egg and I. And in case you're wondering, we do have indoor plumbing and running water.

Pure Poultry is a memoir of our first five years of raising heritage chickens, turkeys and ducks. There is plenty of advice and tips based on our experiences, but I believe that you will enjoy reading it even if you don't raise poultry. It might inspire you to start a little food garden in pots on your apartment's deck. Maybe you'll connect with a friend in the suburbs who has chickens and is willing to barter for fresh eggs. And if you do decide to start raising poultry, I hope that Pure Poultry will convince you to think about choosing beautiful, sustainable heritage breeds.