As two new brands are added to the massive national egg recall list, many Americans are looking at the carton of eggs in their fridge, wondering whether it's safe to eat them.
More than 550,000 eggs have been recalled for potential salmonella contamination, and more than 1,470 people have been sickened. Salmonella bacteria can exist both on the shell and inside the egg and, if eaten, can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
The recall is particularly hard for Americans because we love eggs. We ate 70 billion of them in 2000, which translates to about 250 for each of us annually.
Children and those over 65, in particular, tend to eat eggs at home more often than other age groups, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ironically, it's those two groups who are most at risk for salmonella poisoning, as well as those with a chronic illness or a weakened immune system.
Unfortunately, you can't tell by sight, taste or smell whether an egg is contaminated. So what else can consumers do?
Infectious disease expert William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, has some simple advice: "If you cook your eggs thoroughly, you reduce your risk of getting infection to virtually zero."
That means, he emphasizes, virtually hard-boiling them. "That yolk must be cooked all the way through. No more sunny-side up with a wiggly yolk."
And organic eggs are no guarantee of safety from salmonella either, he notes. "There's probably a lower risk with organic eggs from your local small farm, but it's still not zero," Schaffner says. Salmonella bacteria come from fecal contamination, "and chickens are not ultra-hygienic. Even local hens can encounter rodents or peck around at some nasty stuff and the farmer would never know they are infected," he says.
While the scope of this egg recall is huge, salmonella contamination of eggs is nothing new. A report last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that eggs were number two on a list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Eggs were second only to leafy greens in causing outbreaks of food poisoning.
Part of the problem, says Schaffner, is the government's complex food regulatory system. "Eggs are supposed to be overseen by the FDA," he says, "but the USDA has responsibility for the hens. The whole system is full of these entanglements."
To reduce your risk of illness from tainted eggs, here are some tips from Schaffner and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Cook thoroughly until the yolk and white are firm. Cooking kills salmonella, so avoid eggs cooked with runny yolks. That means no more over-easy, loosely scrambled or soft-boiled.
- Wash your hands. Salmonella can exist on the outside of the egg's shell, as well as on the inside, so wash your hands after handling raw eggs.
- Consider pasteurized eggs. They cost a little more, but they're safe because they've been heat-treated. (Most hospitals and nursing homes use pasteurized eggs.) Pasteurized eggs are available at several major food chains including Harris Teeter, Publix, Jewel and Giant Eagle.
- Don't eat raw eggs. That means no nibbling on uncooked cookie dough, or eating restaurant dishes made with undercooked or raw eggs, such as custard, Hollandaise sauce or Caesar dressing unless they're made with pasteurized eggs.
- Discard any cracked or dirty eggs.
- Keep eggs refrigerated at all times.
Candy Sagon writes on health issues for the Bulletin.