Handling the Backyard Flock and Egg Safety
With more and more municipalities allowing individuals to have a backyard chicken coop, consumers are asking questions about the care and safety of eggs gathered from their own flock or from a local farmer.
Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on earth and can be part of a healthy diet. However, they are perishable just like raw meat, poultry and fish. Poultry may carry bacteria such as Campylobacterand Salmonella that can cause illness to you and your family. Infected birds do not usually appear sick and even unbroken, clean, fresh shell eggs may contain harmful bacteria.
Because of nationwide recalls of shell eggs due to Salmonella contamination, we now understand the ways in which shell eggs can become contaminated vary widely. Salmonella can be introduced to shell eggs not only through the laying process but also via contaminated poultry feed or bedding and from baby chicks (pullets) that may have become contaminated in a hatchery. None of these routes of contamination are unique to large animal husbandry operations.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help ensure safe, home-produced chicken eggs.
Caring for the Flock
Maintaining the flock in an enclosed shed is often a local requirement and will help protect the flock from predators and make egg collecting easier.
Eggs will stay cleaner if the shed area is kept clean and dry. Maintain floor litter in good condition. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the shed at least once a year. Obtain an approved disinfectant from your feed store and apply according to directions.
Allow one nest for every three to four chickens and make sure nests are large enough for your hens. To protect eggs, pad nests with straw or wood chips. Clean out nest boxes once a week to remove dirty litter and manure and replace with clean nesting material.
Provide a perch above the floor over a dropping box away from the nests. Chickens will roost on the perch to sleep and defecate into the wire-mesh-covered dropping box. Do not let hens roost in the nest boxes.
Caring for the Eggs
Collect the eggs often. Eggs that spend more time in the nest have an increased chance of becoming dirty, broken or lower in quality. Collecting eggs at least twice daily is recommended, preferably before noon. Consider a third collection in late afternoon or early evening, especially in hot or cold weather. Coated wire baskets or plastic egg flats are good containers for collecting eggs. Discard eggs with broken or cracked shells.
Cleaning. Dirty eggs can be a health hazard. Eggs with dirt and debris can be cleaned with fine sandpaper, a brush or emery cloth. If eggs need to be washed, the temperature of the water should be at least 20 degrees warmer than the egg. This will prevent the egg contents from contracting and producing a vacuum. It will also prevent microscopic bacteria from being pulled by vacuum through the pores of the egg. A dishwashing liquid that is free of scents and dyes is acceptable. Eggs can be sanitized by dipping in a solution of 1 tablespoon household bleach to 1 gallon of water before storage. Dry eggs before storing because moisture may enter the shell pores as eggs cool on refrigeration.
Storage. Store eggs in the main section of the refrigerator at 35-40 degrees; the shelves in the door tend to be warmer than interior shelves. If collected properly and stored in the refrigerator, eggs should have a shelf life of six to eight weeks. Date the storage carton or container and use older eggs first. If you have more eggs than you can use, you can break them out of their shells and freeze them. Only freeze fresh eggs. Beat until just blended, pour into freezer containers, seal tightly, and label with the number of eggs and the date. Add a small amount of salt, sugar or corn syrup to prevent gelling and improve the keeping quality of the eggs. It’s a good idea to note any additional ingredients on the freezer container. The whites and yolks may also be frozen separately.
Preparation. Never eat eggs raw or undercooked. Undercooked egg whites and yolks have been associated with outbreaks of Salmonellainfections. To prevent illness from bacteria, cook eggs until yolks are firm and whites are set, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly. Do not keep cooked or raw eggs at room temperature for more than two hours.
Caring for Manure
Compost chicken manure to proper temperatures to kill harmful bacteria before using it to fertilize garden plots used for growing fruits and vegetables. Un-composted manure can be a source of bacterial contamination for produce grown in the garden. Chicken manure can also be high in nitrates and may damage plants if applied directly. The best option often is to use chicken manure in flower gardens, shrub borders and other nonfood gardens.
Caring for Yourself
Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling eggs, chickens or anything in their environment.
Do not wash feed and water dishes from the chicken shed in the kitchen sink.
Sharing or Selling Eggs Collected on Your Farm
If you choose to share eggs from your flock with friends and neighbors it is important to follow the safety recommendations outlined in this article. Use generic egg cartons that do not display a store or brand name and provide the date eggs were collected. Plastic egg holders sold for camping or plastic egg trays available from farm supply stores are good options for distributing eggs because they can be washed and reused.
According to the Department of Agriculture in Alabama, "If the producer wishes to sell eggs from his/her home/farm, they are not required to do anything. However, if the producer wishes to take the eggs to a farmers market to sale, they must follow the guidelines set out in the Alabama Shell Egg Law.
"In summation, they would have to clearly imprint thereon or securely attach thereto a label on which there shall be plainly and legibly printed the name and the address of the packer of said eggs, the grade and weight class to which the eggs contained therein conform, and the date on which the eggs were graded."
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at 205-410-3696 or your local county Extension office.