This week we are focusing on the free range label you see on the egg cartons at your local grocery store and how that label relates to food safety.
The free range label is the most misunderstood label found on an egg carton. Most people associate free range with chickens roaming in a large, wide-open pasture. This can be far from the truth. USDA only requires that egg producers labeling eggs as free range have demonstrated that the birds were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for more than 51 percent of their lives. Free-range eggs are sometimes, but not always, produced USDA Certified Organic or raised on pasture.
The same food safety risks apply for free range eggs as do organically produced eggs. The United States Animal Health Association has stated that outdoor access greatly increases the likelihood that laying hens will have direct contact with migratory and wild birds as well as rodents and other pests, substantially increasing the risk of exposure to highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (AI), Exotic Newcastle Disease and other avian diseases. Free range hens are also exposed to more fecal material which can harbor bacteria like Salmonella Enteritidis (SE). SE has been found to lead to human illness if contaminated eggs are improperly stored, handled and/or prepared. Currently, there is little to no government regulation for food safety of eggs produced in free range systems.
No matter what kind of eggs you choose to purchase—whether it be cage, cage-free, free-range or organic—it is important to remember to prevent food-borne disease, wash all surfaces, utensils and hands before and after handling eggs as well as cook eggs thoroughly, with both the egg yolk and egg white firm.