Egg Safety Should Always Be Considered

Contributors: Martha Filipic
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Although the massive egg-related Salmonella outbreak is on the wane, Ohio State University food safety microbiologists say the situation serves as a good reminder that consumers always should be cautious about their handling and consumption of whole shell eggs. At the same time, consumers needn't be overly worried about their safety, either.

"Eggs are a raw product," said Jennifer Perry, a post-doctoral researcher working with Ahmed Yousef, a microbiologist and professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University. "Although it is rare to find Salmonella inside the egg, research conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists has demonstrated that the pathogen may be present on the exterior of about 8 percent of shell eggs, yet people treat them as if they're sterile. They wouldn't handle raw chicken breast the way they handle eggs, but they probably should treat the products about the same."

The scientists commented about egg safety as 550 million eggs from two Iowa farms were recalled after eggs from those farms were linked to increased numbers of illnesses related to Salmonella Enteritidis, the type of Salmonella usually associated with whole shell eggs. About 80 billion eggs are produced in the United States each year.

Perry and Yousef said key considerations for consumers include:

Refrigerate eggs. Eggs always should be refrigerated to prevent any bacteria that may be on or inside the eggs from multiplying. Ingesting a few cells of Salmonella is less risky than thousands or millions of them. Cells can multiply rapidly in eggs held at room temperature.

Handle properly. Thoroughly wash your hands, countertops and other surfaces that come into contact with eggs or their contents, as you would do with raw meat.

Cook thoroughly or be prepared to take a risk. The only way to completely eradicate Salmonella bacteria that may be in an egg is to be sure the egg is completely cooked through -- hard-boiled or over hard. Even scrambled eggs may not be cooked long or hot enough to be completely safe, "unless they're cooked until they're rubbery," Perry said.

At the same time, consumers who have eggs in their refrigerator that are not part of the recall do not have to eye them any more suspiciously than they would otherwise, said Perry and Yousef.

"What is happening with this recall is not the norm," said Yousef, who is also a scientist with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. "We have these sporadic events and, yes, we need to react in a responsible way, but eggs that fall outside of this recall are no more risky than they were before."

Generally, organic eggs or those from cage-free operations carry the same risk as other eggs, the scientists said, although none are involved in current outbreak.

People most at risk from Salmonella-related illness are children, the elderly, and anyone with a chronic health condition; Perry and Yousef recommend that they never eat undercooked eggs; pasteurized egg products are a good option for at-risk populations. Other people who might ingest Salmonella bacteria that would normally be expected in a contaminated egg would generally experience non-life threatening symptoms.

In addition to good epidemiological investigation, Yousef and Perry credit PulseNet, a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories created in the 1990s and coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for being able to pinpoint the cause of the increase Salmonella illnesses that health authorities began noticing in May. According to the CDC, between the beginning of May and the end of July, 1,953 illnesses in states across the nation associated with a specific subtype of Salmonella were reported to PulseNet; based on the previous five years of data, authorities would have expected the number to be closer to 700.

"In the last few years, it's been easier to link illnesses to a particular food," Yousef said. "The lab techniques and the ability to track pathogens (from patients) back to their food source have improved, and as a result we might see an increase in recalls when an event like this is identified." Before these techniques were implemented, authorities may not have even recognized widespread cases of illness as an outbreak associated with a common food source, Yousef and Perry said.

More information on the egg recall, including information on which eggs are involved in the recall, is available at http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/MajorProductRecalls/ucm223522.htm or, currently, at http://www.foodsafety.gov.



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