It’s fair to say that eggs are a breakfast staple… Fried, scrambled, poached, served with ham and Hollandaise sauce… And that’s not to mention the fact that they’re an essential ingredient in countless dishes: the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin is practically an institution, after all. So a TikTok user sent the social media sphere into a spin when they revealed that outside of America, eggs are sold on the shelves and not in refrigerators.
Mauren Sparrow took to the popular video-sharing site TikTok to explain why eggs are strictly kept chilled in the United States but not in the rest of the world – and people absolutely flipped out. “My life is a lie,” declared one Twitter user. Another Twitterer confessed, “Things I should be doing since I have free time for the next two hours: researching for the research paper due in less than a week. What I am doing: lying in bed watching YouTube videos on why [Americans] refrigerate eggs.”
Sparrow’s egg-ducational video caused such a commotion, in fact, that it has racked up over 25,000 likes and prompted more than 2,000 comments. But who is Mauren Sparrow? And what prompted her to wax lyrical about eggs? To answer the first question, the millennial from Arkansas actually has her own website dedicated to celebrating body positivity, as well as promoting and selling her own fashion storefront for LuLaRoe.
Sparrow wittily referred to herself as “the Egg Girl” when we caught up with her and quizzed her on her ovum insight. “I had studied abroad in New Zealand for five months in college and remembered seeing eggs on the shelves [in supermarkets] and being so confused! I originally made that TikTok because I had been chatting with some friends who had never been abroad, and they didn’t realize that most of the world stores [its] eggs on the shelf instead of in the fridge.”
But what is it about these ubiquitous oeufs and the different ways in which we store them that blows people’s minds? To answer that, we need to look at the way that we handle certain foods and why. It’s commonly recognized as a health hazard, of course, to eat undercooked or incorrectly stored food. And we all know that certain meats like chicken and pork, for example, as well as seafood, can have particularly nasty effects if kept at room temperature for too long. We are, of course, talking about food poisoning here.
“Foodborne illness,” as it’s otherwise known, is caused by eating or drinking a substance that has been contaminated by toxins, by bacteria or by viruses. The rather ghastly symptoms that sufferers can experience include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Yuck. Worse still, complications from food poisoning can lead to even more dramatic problems such as kidney damage and even death among older adults, children and people with weakened immune systems. Shocking stuff.
Viruses are one of the main causes of foodborne illness, occurring when food, eating utensils or surfaces touched by food are contaminated by a carrier. The norovirus – also known as “the winter vomiting bug” – is in fact the number one cause of this type of illness in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around 60 percent of cases of foodborne illness each year stem from norovirus – and this all costs the U.S. economy some $2 billion annually, according to CDC estimates.
Another cause of foodborne illness is the presence of parasites. Toxoplasma gondii is an ominous little critter that can be picked up from eating undercooked or contaminated meat – particularly lamb, pork and venison and seafood such as clams, mussels and oysters. While this particular parasite can reside perfectly happily in the digestive tract of most healthy people without causing significant upset, it can have serious health implications for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
Then, of course, there’s bacterial infection… We all know and fear those invisible nasties that we’ve heard are such common causes of illness, including E.coli and Salmonella. The latter is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to food poisoning… According to the CDC, this type of bacteria causes over one million infections and more than 26,000 hospitalizations every year. Even more frighteningly, the CDC’s records show that contamination of eggs was responsible for over half of all the cases of Salmonella in the years between 1985 and 2002. Yikes.
The U.K.’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has some advice to help out with our safe-eating endeavors, though. To avoid potential Salmonella poisoning, we should remember the four “Cs” of food hygiene, according to the agency. They are: Chilling, Cleaning, Cooking and Cross-Contamination avoidance. If these practices are followed correctly then the chance of these harmful bacteria getting into your system – and subsequently wreaking havoc – is likely to be considerably reduced.
When we talk about “chilling,” we’re not talking about leaving your food to kick back on the couch, of course. As we’ve already discussed, refrigeration is key to keeping these horrible, illness-causing pathogens at bay. So be sure to keep your refrigerator temperature at 41° F (5° C) or lower, and use a refrigerator thermometer if possible to ensure that it doesn’t get too warm. And any food with a “use by” date should always be stored in the refrigerator.
Hand cleaning is also vital. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water – or failing that, use antibacterial hand gel or wipes – to maximize the chance of killing any sinister bugs or viruses you may be carrying about. Otherwise, these will be transferred onto the food that you prepare and eat. Then it’s a green light into your system. Washing work surfaces and cooking utensils is equally important.
According to the FSA, “Bacterial cross-contamination is most likely to happen when raw food touches or drips onto ready-to-eat food, utensils or surfaces.” You can avoid this by making sure that raw foods like meat, seafood and eggs are kept apart from other items in the refrigerator. Uncooked meat should be kept covered and. ideally, at the bottom of the refrigerator, so that juices can’t come into contact with other foods.
Cooking can also play an essential role in the prevention of food poisoning. Heating food for the right amount of time and at the right temperature is crucial to killing off the likes of Salmonella. Why? Because the heat in cooking causes the proteins in bacteria to break down, which means that they can no longer survive and multiply. Bringing food to a temperature of above 140° F (60° C), or ideally 158° F (70° C), is needed to make this happen.
While it’s not strictly true that eating raw eggs is guaranteed to give you food poisoning, it’s certainly the case that consuming eggs that haven’t gone through the cooking process – which can kill bacteria – increases the risk of Salmonella infection. But it is also worth bearing in mind that eating raw eggs means that you won’t be able to so effectively absorb all the lovely proteins that they’re bursting at the shells with.
The humble egg offers so much more than protein, though. Oh yes. Those little oval gems are actually packed with an array of nutrients and vitamins. In fact, they contain a variety of things we need in our recommended daily diet. And despite being high in cholesterol, they don’t raise blood cholesterol to an unhealthy level for most.
In fact, eggs actually seem to increase your levels of high-density lipoprotein, which is known as the “good” cholesterol. What’s more, evidence has shown that they effectively disarm bad cholesterol. Chickens reared on pasture have also been proven to produce eggs higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which lower blood triglycerides and help to reduce the risk of heart disease. Win!
You probably didn’t know either that a single egg contains over 100mg of choline. “What’s choline?” we hear you ask. Well, it’s a little-known but extremely important substance used in the construction of cell membranes and brain molecules, among other jobs. In fact, it has pretty serious implications for your health if you’re found to be deficient in it.
Good news for our peepers too… Eggs are rich in the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein, which are important for your eyesight. And as already mentioned, eggs are high in quality protein – which is important when you consider that protein makes up the bricks and mortar of the body. Protein is a core component of our hair and nails, and it also plays a vital part in making up our muscle, skin, bones and blood.
Being high in protein means that eggs will also fill you up more quickly than other foods. And that’s not just anecdotal – eggs actually score highly on the satiety index, which is used to measure the ability of foods to satisfy your appetite. All this means that having eggs for breakfast will make you less likely to be reaching for snacks before lunch. So they can actually help with weight loss as well. Hooray!
But how do these nutritious and delicious eggs make it into our refrigerators – or not, given that people outside America apparently don’t chill their eggs? Well, we don’t need to make a call on whether the chicken or the egg came first, but it’s fair to say that, for the most part, people eat eggs laid by chickens. A lot goes into the creation of an egg, though.
As the egg is formed, protective tissue and sheets of white are wrapped around the yolk. They are then locked in a shell and covered with another protective protein layer. This cuticle forms a barrier like a castle’s defenses, stopping the insidious likes of Salmonella from entering the egg’s shell.
So how can these bacteria make their way through that protective coating and into the egg? There are a couple of different paths: the chicken itself may be infected and so able to transfer Salmonella directly into the egg, for one. Alternatively, if the cuticle is damaged, the bacteria can pass through the shell – so you should think twice about eating them.
This brings us to the yolk of the matter. In the United States, eggs are sanitized. This sterilization process sees them being cleaned with hot water before they receive a good dousing of disinfectant. The trouble is that this washing process can sometimes thin the egg’s outer shell or damage it – giving those evil Salmonella bugs an easy way in. What’s more, it can’t do anything about bacteria already present within the shell.
That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) insists that eggs be kept cold. Scientific evidence has shown that storing eggs at temperatures below 40° F (4° C) stops Salmonella in its tracks. Thorough cooking, meanwhile, can also kill off those malevolent microbes – so there’s very little risk left in the equation if everything is done right.
Because of this, the USDA has decreed it to be unsanitary to store eggs at room temperature. As TikTok guru Mauren Sparrow explained, “Food safety officials emphasize that once eggs have been refrigerated, it is critical they remain that way. A cool egg at room temperature can sweat, facilitating the growth of bacteria that could enter the egg through its porous shell.”
Despite this, though, keeping a carton of eggs on a shelf is completely acceptable in many countries around the world, including the United Kingdom. Why? Because in these countries, egg-laying hens are vaccinated directly against the most common strain of Salmonella, rather than the eggs being sanitized after they’re hatched.
This vaccination process tackles the problem at the source and means that the eggs then don’t need to be treated with quite so much care. According to data published by the National Institutes of Health, cases of Salmonella infection in the U.K. plummeted after a comprehensive vaccination program was launched in the 1990s.
That’s not to say that the presence of Salmonella in poultry and eggs outside of the United States is non-existent. As recently as October 2020, the FSA issued a warning that a number of eggs sold in U.K. supermarkets could be contaminated with the strain of bacteria, due to an outbreak on a farm supplying the stores.
That isn’t entirely the end of the matter, though. It’s fairly common knowledge that meat should be thoroughly cooked until the juices run clear and no pink meat remains. But what about eggs? We’ve learned about the sanitation and refrigeration of eggs – but what can we do to make sure that we handle and cook them correctly at home?
Well, the CDC advises that eggs should be kept in the refrigerator at home – as you might expect. Additionally, eggs that look a little dirty or damaged should be thrown away and should certainly not be eaten, as they carry a considerably higher risk of Salmonella infection. So far, so good.
But there’s bad news if you like your egg yolks runny. The CDC warns that yolks and whites should be cooked until firm to avoid the risk of Salmonella poisoning. A word of caution for Caesar salad fans too… The eggs used in this type of dressing and sauces such as Hollandaise should be pasteurized – pre-treated to kill any bacteria – if you want to prevent a nasty bout of foodborne illness. But that’s not the end of it.
Dishes involving eggs should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160° F (71° C), the CDC advises. Once off the heat, they should never be left out for longer than two hours. And that’s especially true in a warm environment or on a hot day. This is where barbecues and cookouts can be particularly dangerous territories for potential poisoning, as food can be exposed to warmer temperatures for longer. So take heed if you don’t want to get sick…
Okay, so how can we tell if an egg has gone bad? Perhaps the simplest and most obvious clues are the dates printed on the carton. The “sell by” date only indicates how long it’s safe for the eggs to be on sale in supermarkets, however, which will be within 30 days of the packing date. But the expiration date suggests when they might, in fact, be turning bad due to bacterial growth. That said, these dates are merely guides and not a guarantee that the eggs have become unsafe to eat.
As the old saying goes, follow your nose… Egg – or indeed just about any food that’s gone bad – will generally give off a noticeable odor. You might be able to tell as soon as the egg is cracked, but if not – crack the egg into a container first then check it. If the smell is unpleasant, be sure to throw it away and give the container a good clean in warm, soapy water.
Just as meat that has gone bad can appear slimy and slippery, eggs are much the same, and they shouldn’t be eaten if the shell or contents appear this way. And once cracked into a jug or dish, always check the yolk and whites for any sign of discoloration as well. This can be another sign of the presence of bacteria.
Now here’s a clever trick to check whether an egg is getting old… Carefully place the egg in a bowl of water. Contrary to what you might expect, if the egg sinks, it’s good. If it floats on the surface, on the other hand, then the egg’s quality is starting to deteriorate due to the moisture inside being replaced by air. This happens as the egg ages, so it’s a sure sign that it’s less than fresh.
One more way to test the freshness of an egg at home is actually with a method called candling. When an egg ages, the air inside it expands – giving the contents more room to move around. If you stand in a darkened room and hold a candle or torch up to an egg, rotating it as you do so, then the inside of the egg should become visible. If the contents are shifting around easily, then that means there’s air inside the egg – and it’s less than fresh.
If the candling method is a little too scientific for you, then it’s worth keeping in mind that the best way to check the freshness of an egg is to go by smell and appearance. And whether you’re living in a country that refrigerates its eggs, or doesn’t, pop them in the refrigerator at home if you want to keep them fresher for longer. Remember, as well, the importance of thorough cooking and careful handling of raw egg if you want to avoid Salmonella poisoning; and finally, never leave cooked eggs or egg dishes out for longer than two hours.
Of course, it’s not just in the United States that eggs are sanitized and kept in the chiller afterwards. As Mauren Sparrow points out, “It turns out that there [are] other countries that follow the same process: Canada, Japan and the Scandinavian region. I still can’t believe how far [the TikTok video] reached and is still reaching!” We can only imagine that Sparrow must be egg-static to have made such an impact on her online audience!