Back to the egg: a shining example of absurd EU regulation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In Bulgarian supermarkets, eggs are kept refrigerated. But this is illegal under EU rules. [Kostadin Fikiin]

During this exceptionally hot summer, food chain operators and retailers intuitively used their fridges to prevent eggs from spoilage, although this is not permitted in the EU, writes Kostadin Fikiin.

Kostadin Fikiin is an international R&D project manager, Technical University of Sofia (Bulgaria).

In Belgium where I often come for work, the eggs people buy in stores are not refrigerated. In southern EU countries, like Bulgaria, retailers tend to refrigerate them. Should eggs in stores be refrigerated or not?

The issue has recently been addressed by our critical article which calls for a revision of the  EC Regulation No. 589/2008 in a science-based manner by paying paramount attention to the consumer’s interest for an uncompromisingly safe and high-quality product.

Current egg handling, storage and distribution practices in Europe and the USA are radically different and virtually incompatible. No vaccination of egg-laying chickens against Salmonella is required in North America, but the eggs must be washed and refrigerated from farm to retail store.

As many European countries enforce hen vaccination, the US rule ‘Wash and refrigerate!’ has been mirrored in the EU as ‘Do not wash, do not refrigerate!’. Prohibiting washing aims to preserve the eggshell cuticle that naturally protects each egg. However, banning refrigeration as a whole has no reasonable or logical grounds.

EC Regulation No. 589/2008 is over-fixated on the moisture condensation which may occur on the shells when eggs, chilled down to temperatures below an alleged threshold of 5 oC, are taken out from refrigerated facilities. Such a condensation might promote adverse bacterial growth.

Except for the limit of 5 oC, there are no quantitative temperature and humidity control requirements.

We have therefore decided to challenge the EC regulation because it inspires fear from the chilled storage of eggs but permits and tolerates their handling at high temperatures. While a constant temperature of storage and transportation is recommended, no concrete values are specified, nor even an upper limit.

At the same time, it is stipulated that eggs should not be refrigerated before sale to the final consumer. The question is, how do the legislators imagine the maintenance of the desired constant egg temperature without refrigeration and cold-chain facilities?

The regulation also requires that eggs chilled below 5oC during certain storage and transportation periods must be downgraded to a lower class. Only the French overseas territories are able to enjoy chilled eggs, although packages should prominently be labelled with warning marks (similarly to a dangerous good). At the same time, no precautions are foreseen for eggs handled at dangerously high temperatures.

While consumers are advised to keep high-class eggs chilled after purchase, egg-handling operators are expected to do just the opposite – to deal with warm non-chilled eggs (which is in total contrast with the imperatives for a continuous and ubiquitous cold chain for perishable foods of animal origin).

There is no interrelation between the storage temperature and the resulting egg safety, quality and shelf life. No monitoring or control of the ambient air’s relative humidity (RH) is foreseen.

Overall, the regulation seems to be rather liberal towards the producers, operators and traders of eggs. These supply-chain actors are almost not burdened with mandatory legislative requirements, while the consumer’s interest for a safe and high-quality product must be protected to a higher extent.

In fact, the moisture condensation on the chilled eggs’ surface occurs intensively, as a more substantial problem, in the northernmost European regions, characterised with comparatively low temperatures and high RHs during autumn and winter periods.

In Central Europe, attention should be paid to both the unwanted condensation and the high temperatures, while the spring and summer hotness in Southern Europe is the main source of hazard during egg handling.

At high ambient temperatures, chilled eggs removed from the fridge quickly increase their surface temperature, thereby dramatically reducing the condensation on the shell and rapidly evaporating the thin condensate’s film. Thus, the surface growth of pathogenic microflora becomes highly unlikely.

As per the aforementioned article, all scientific evidence published globally so far indicates that the safety of raw shell eggs is guaranteed and their natural quality is preserved for a much longer period by chilled handling and storage.

Low-temperature chilling maximises the premium quality eggs and minimises the product deterioration during storage. Refrigeration is beneficial for both washed (US-style) and unwashed (EU-style) eggs, once the eggshell condensation is avoided or adequately controlled.

There are more than 350 million laying hens in the EU, which produce nearly 6.7 million tonnes of eggs each year. Inexplicably, EC Regulation No. 589/2008 prohibits the use of refrigeration in this key agricultural sector.

Scientific evidence around the world clearly proves the need for temperature and humidity control during handling, storage, transport and distribution of raw shell eggs, which commonly employs a continuous and ubiquitous cold chain.

The EU cold-chain sector is enough advanced to cope successfully with the notorious condensation – a completely manageable phenomenon, which is not equally critical in all regions of Europe.

The European Commission and EFSA should clarify that EC Regulation No. 589/2008 prevents eggs from chilling below 5 oC only, and does not ban refrigeration in principle (given UNECE Standard Egg-1 defines ‘chilled eggs’ as those kept at 0-5oC).

The next reasonable step would be to carefully reconsider the regulation by introducing transparent and coherent requirements vis-à-vis the temperature and humidity control throughout the entire food chain for raw eggs.

The condensation threshold (believed to be 5oC) may need to be readjusted and diversified depending on the average temperatures and RHs in different climatic zones of EU27. The terms ‘refrigeration’ and ‘chilling’ must comply with the IIR/ASHRAE definitions to avoid further confusions.

Last but not least, egg and cold-chain stakeholders should start a closer collaboration to harmonise, where possible, relevant codes and practices in Europe, USA and the rest of the world, thereby reducing artificial trade barriers.

Of course, Europe cannot be obliged to adopt alien traditions but refrigerated eggs, especially when chilled down to temperatures over the on-shell condensation threshold, must be legalised.

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