Salmonella cracks eggs' image as safe

September 24, 1990|By Frank D.Roylance | Frank D.Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Chances are, the eggs in the batter you lick from the beater tonight, or the ones you'll fry "over easy" tomorrow, won't kill you, or even make you sick.

But federal officials are worried enough about the spread of a mutant salmonella bacterium in the nation's egg supply that they want state and local authorities to crack down on food handlers who don't take the threat seriously.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently designated eggs a "potentially hazardous food," capable of supporting the growth of dangerous Salmonella enteritidis bacteria if not stored and cooked properly.

Salmonella enteritidis can cause severe diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting and dehydration that can be fatal, especially to the very old or young, or those with weakened immune systems.

From January 1985 through October 1989, outbreaks killed 43 people in the United States and sickened more than 6,600, the federal Centers for Disease Control report. Nearly three-quarters the outbreaks were believed linked to salmonella-infected eggs.

Institutions for the elderly have been especially vulnerable.

In Maryland, no one has died, but 194 people have been sickened in 12 egg-linked Salmonella enteritidis outbreaks since said Dr. Diane Dwyer, chief of clinical epidemiology at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

And those are just the cases reported to public health authorities. Most are probably dismissed as "stomach flu," and "probably less than 10 percent actually get reported," Dwyer said.

Illnesses caused by Salmonella enteritidis bacteria, she said, strike more quickly, more severely, and last longer than those caused by common 24-hour viruses. Salmonella symptoms appear 12 to 36 hours after eating the contaminated product and last several days.

The FDA's designation of eggs as "potentially hazardous food" is designed to remind consumers to properly refrigerate and thoroughly cook raw eggs, and to force state and local health authorities to enforce proper handling by restaurants and food service personnel.

"The impact is on the states," said Joseph Madden, acting director of the FDA's division of microbiology. "If they don't implement these practices, and there is an outbreak of salmonella due to someone not following the guidelines, the state can be sued."

The federal action is aimed mainly at southern and western states that are only just beginning to see outbreaks of egg-related salmonella.

David Resh, director of the state health department's Office of Food Protection, said he believes Maryland's rules already comply.

In fact, he said, the federal rules may not go far enough. They fail to address the need for refrigeration of eggs after they are laid in chicken houses, where temperatures can rise to 100 or 115 degrees for extended periods.

If the government is worried about time and temperature management, Resh said, "they should start at the point where the eggs are produced."

The "potentially hazardous food" label is one the egg industry thought it had shaken 17 years ago, said Chris Lecos, an FDA press officer.

Outbreaks of food poisoning in the early 1970s were linked to the presence of salmonella bacteria on the outside of eggs. Congress responded with a law requiring that all "shell" eggs be washed and disinfected before packing.

In October 1973, the FDA declared that the federal sanitation rules had ended the threat, and the "potentially hazardous food" designation was lifted.

But since the early 1980s, Lecos said, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have seen a resurgence of egg-related salmonella, first in the Northeast, then the middle Atlantic region, and now in the southeast and western states.

But why, if the eggs are still being disinfected before shipment?

"We think that certain strains of salmonella have . . . somehow mutated so that they can infect the chicken, and yet the chicken will not show obvious signs of illness," Madden said.

Somehow, the yolk and whites of the eggs are contaminated as they form in the chickens' ovaries, and they remain capable of causing disease even after the shells are disinfected.

Even infected eggs can be safely consumed if the bacteria are prevented from growing by refrigeration, or killed by proper cooking.

The FDA has recommended that shell eggs be received by the retailer and stored at 45 degrees or lower until the time they are used.

Raw eggs should be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm throughout.

Restaurant chefs and food service cooks who "pool" raw eggs in an unrefrigerated container for a time before cooking are risking their customers' health, Dwyer said. So are consumers who allow their children to lick beaters and bowls used to mix batters containing raw eggs.

"It's an ongoing problem," Dwyer said. "We still find restaurants that pool eggs before scrambling. We have had an outbreak that was associated with eggs fried over light. Though the risk is low, the individual who likes eggs with a runny center is taking some risk."

Besides issuing warnings and guidelines for food handlers, the federal government this year began policing chicken flocks identified by state officials as sources of salmonella outbreaks.

Tips for cooking eggs safely

Here are the U.S. Food and Drug Administration' VTC recommendations for egg safety:

* STORAGE: Refrigerate fresh eggs at 45 degrees or colder until ready for use.

* COOKING: Scrambled -- one minute on a 250-degree surface.

Sunny side up -- seven minutes, or four minutes if covered.

Fried, over easy -- three minutes on one side, two minutes on the other.

Poached -- five minutes in boiling water.

Soft-cooked -- seven minutes in boiling water.

* RAW EGGS: Avoid recipes calling for raw eggs, such as Caesar salad, uncooked hollandaise, bearnaise sauces and egg nog. Substitute pasteurized egg products.

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