Why aren’t eggs refrigerated at Costa Rican grocery stores?

September 29, 2014

Walking down the refrigerated aisle of the grocery store you’ll find milk, cheese, and … wait, no eggs?

Many expats from the United States are used to finding their favorite breakfast protein in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. However, much of the world doesn’t refrigerate or wash their eggs, Costa Rica included. Both washed and unwashed eggs are safe to eat, as long as they are handled properly.

The main concern with proper handling of eggs has to do with avoiding salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever and abdominal cramps. In some extreme cases, infected people can die from salmonella.

The United States is one of the few countries that washes and refrigerates its eggs to deal with salmonella. Eggs come out of the chicken with their own protective coating, but the washing process removes this first line of defense, making the shells more porous. This increased risk for salmonella passing into the eggs is why eggs that have been washed must remain refrigerated until they hit the frying pan. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), washed eggs should be kept at temperatures no higher than 45 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the supply chain.

William Cardoza, Executive Director of the Chamber of Poultry and Egg Producers, told The Tico Times the main reason Costa Rica does not wash or refrigerate its eggs comes down to cost.

“In Latin America and many other countries, there is no washing step because the refrigeration is expensive. In many countries the eggs are cleaned while dry, and transported at room temperature. If the eggs stay dry, they keep their natural protection against pathogens,” Cardoza said.

Costa Rica requires eggs to be stored in clean, dry areas, and transported at room temperature out of extreme heat. Any eggs that are wet, broken, or, in the case of any producers who do wash their eggs, unrefrigerated for any period of time after washing, are prohibited from sale, according to Technical Regulation RTCR 397:2006.

While unwashed eggs don’t need to be refrigerated before their purchase at the market, Cardoza said that consumers should refrigerate them at home. “Eggs, like any animal product, should be refrigerated to keep them fresh,” he said.

The director added that people should only buy eggs from trusted sources, either from the farm or a store where they are properly packaged and dated. Eggs last 21 days before they go bad, Cardoza said.

There are no figures in Costa Rica on the number of salmonella cases originating from eating infected eggs but salmonella enteritidis, the variety associated with eggs and poultry, was the most common cause of bacterial infections in 2013, said Elena Campos, coordinator for the National Center of Bacteriology, in an email to The Tico Times. Campos highlighted that homemade mayonnaise was one of the most common ways people got the infection.

Hens with salmonella in their ovaries can pass the bacteria into the yolks of their eggs, even if the shell is in good condition and the eggs are properly handled, which leads to the question of whether raw eggs are safe to eat. According to both the FDA and the Costa Rican Nutrition and Health Research Institute (INCIENSA), the answer is no. INCIENSA recommended cooking eggs through and keeping all egg-based dishes refrigerated. The Institute recommends that during food preparation, cooks avoid cracking eggs on the lip of a bowl to avoid any pathogens passing from the shell into the food. Similarly, INCIENSA warned against using an egg shell to separate the whites from the yolk. 

Refrigerated or not, as long as fresh eggs are properly handled, cooks should rest easy. Get cracking!

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If you have any questions or topics you’d like to see addressed in Ask An Expat, email editor Katherine Stanley Obando at kstan.cr@gmail.com.

 

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