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Vegans, Brexit and use-by dates: The Big Issue’s big egg myth-buster

Millions of eggs are needlessly binned each year. Just in time for Easter, Hannah Westwater smashes the myth of the shell-by date

Earlier this month it emerged that Brits are throwing away 720 million eggs each year, worth £139m, through strict observance of best-before dates. It’s a worsening problem: in 2008, only 241 million eggs were being wasted. Experts think the growing popularity of vegetarian diets gave egg sales a boost too, meaning more people than ever are relying on them for protein – but, for at least 29 per cent of us, only for as long as the box says we should.

We at The Big Issue are concerned that you might not be getting the most out of your eggs – so this Easter it’s time to set the record straight.

Best-laid plans

EU regulation demands that best-before dates are 28 days from when they were laid. Ask the Food Standards Agency though, and they’ll tell you not to get in a scramble about it. In 2011 it announced that it was safe to eat eggs after the best before date “as long as they are cooked thoroughly until both yolk and white are solid”.

The team behind food waste-fighting app Too Good To Go agrees. Its research revealed the extent of the surplus egg problem, with co-founder Jamie Crummie commenting: “If you’ve been throwing your eggs in the bin based on the dates on the box, you’ve probably been wasting perfectly good food.”

According to the British Egg Information Service (BEIS), eggs have seen more than a decade of sales growth, up again this year by four per cent (the equivalent of 240 million extra eggs or half a carton for every person in the UK). But this wasn’t always the case. In 1988, then-junior health minister Edwina Currie triggered national hysteria when she told ITN: “Most of the egg production in this country sadly is now infected with salmonella.” By the following day, egg sales had dropped by 60 per cent.

The industry eventually recovered. The BEIS has no evidence of lingering distrust of eggs and points to a recent change in advice on the consumption of raw or runny eggs. A spokesman said as long as an egg has the Lion mark – the food safety scheme that applies to 90 per cent of eggs produced in the UK today – it was laid by a hen vaccinated against salmonella and can be eaten even by pregnant women and babies.

Too Good To Go’s research also found that just 23 per cent of those surveyed were familiar with the test that reveals whether eggs are still fresh enough to eat. Keep it in mind this Easter: If eggs sink to the bottom of a bowl of cold water and lie flat on their sides, they are very fresh. If they are less fresh but still fine to eat, they will stand on one end at the bottom. If they float to the surface, they are no longer fresh enough to eat. (This is because as the egg gets older, the size of the air sac inside increases, making it float).

And if your egg is edible, but only just, be tactical with your cooking. It needs to be fresh if you want to fry or poach it; that will ensure you get a neat, rounded shape. If you hard-boil a really fresh egg, peeling off both the shell and the skin is very difficult, but if it’s at least a few days old the skin will become looser and the egg will peel more easily.

Freeze some surplus egg whites now and they could last well beyond the UK’s ever-shifting EU exit date. But the egg industry is threatening to crack under the weight of Brexit chaos. The BEIS says EU legislation bans “barren battery cages”. But the British Egg Industry Council and welfare group Compassion in World Farming both said that plunging out of the EU without a deal would be disastrous for egg and animal cruelty standards.

Supermarkets could be supplied with eggs from non-EU countries, they said, billions of which could be from hens kept in battery cages. They want ministers to guarantee tariffs that will prevent this. (Some campaigners argue that even the UK’s ‘free range’ label does not guarantee good conditions for hens and that consumers should shop from local independents; others say there is no such thing as an ethical egg at all.)

Food waste figures are hanging over this weekend’s Easter egg rolling and decorating contests, but even the shell can be of use. Making a wall of crushed shell around plants deters slugs, snails and caterpillars. Alternatively, egg shell works well as a non-toxic abrasive for scrubbing those hard-to-clean pots and pans. Last year Leicester egg processing plant Just Egg pioneered a new use for the shells: they are ground into a powder and used to reinforce plastic, like chalk. Even the egg membrane is retained as scientists investigate its potential as a wound dressing.

Now you know, so get cracking.

Image: Flickr/zhouxuan12345678