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How Safe Are the Eggs You Eat?

Before whipping up the eggnog, know how to protect yourself (and your guests) from salmonella poisoning

You can't tell by sight, taste or smell whether an egg is contaminated by salmonella, which can be present on the inside or outside of an egg.

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For that reason, you need to be both smart and careful when handling and eating eggs.

The following advice comes from the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from an interview by AARP's Bulletin with infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Don't eat raw eggs: "If you cook your eggs thoroughly, you reduce your risk of getting infection to virtually zero," Schaffner says. Egg whites should be firm, he says, and the "yolk must be cooked all the way through. No more sunny-side up with a wiggly yolk." Unfortunately, the only-eat-cooked-eggs rule means no nibbling on uncooked cookie dough, or eating foods made with undercooked or raw eggs, such as hollandaise sauce or Caesar dressing, unless the sauces are made with pasteurized eggs. During the holidays, be careful about the eggnog you drink and serve.

Consider buying 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, which are useful for recipes that require raw eggs, are available at several grocery store chains, including Harris Teeter, Publix, Jewel-Osco and Giant Eagle.

Be cautious with farm-fresh eggs, too: "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," he says. "Even local hens can encounter rodents or peck around at some nasty stuff and the farmer might never know they are infected."

Cleanliness is key: Salmonella can exist on the outside of an egg's shell, as well as on the inside, so wash your hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water when handling raw eggs. Similarly, wash all utensils, equipment and work surfaces before and after they come into contact with raw eggs or foods that contain raw eggs. 

Keep eggs refrigerated at all times: Only buy eggs that have been stored in refrigerated cases, and at home keep them in your refrigerator in their original carton. (Eggs should generally be used within three weeks of purchase.) When shopping, plan to get eggs back into refrigeration quickly, just as you would with a quart of milk or fresh meats. If you're bringing eggs on a picnic or packing them into a bag lunch, include a cool pack or frozen juice box to keep them chilled.

Serving eggs safely: Cooked eggs, including hard-boiled eggs, should not be left out for more than two hours. If they aren't consumed within two hours of preparation, cooked eggs and egg-containing dishes need to be refrigerated (below 40°F) or reheated (to 165°F or above). Egg-containing leftovers should be used within three or four days. Hard-cooked eggs should be consumed within a week.

Discard any cracked, dirty eggs: Before buying eggs, open the carton to inspect that the eggs are clean and that the shells aren't cracked. If you find that eggs are cracked when you get home, throw them away. It may seem wasteful, but better safe than sorry.

You may also like: Test your food safety smarts.

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