When it comes to the latest salmonella scare, it's the eggs that are causing most of the confusion.
By this time most Americans are aware that 30 percent or more of the country's poultry probably is contaminated with some salmonella bacteria and thus must be cooked thoroughly before eating, according to government estimates. But there aren't many people out there craving raw chicken.
Not so with eggs. Raw and partly cooked eggs are essential ingredients in homemade mayonnaise, hollandaise, Caesar salad, ice cream, egg nog, mousse and meringue, not to mention those three-minute, soft-boiled eggs and the sunnyside-up ones with the runny yolks.
Most hotels, restaurants and caterers have stopped using any raw eggs in their foods, but is this a situation dire enough to cause major consternation on the home front?
The answer from official sources is yes. Spokesmen for the Chicago Board of Health, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Institute of Food Technologists say that, to be safe, all eggs must be cooked to a temperature of at least 140 degrees throughout before consumption. For spokesmen speaking to a large, diverse audience, that is the easiest way to deal with a ticklish situation.
Until a couple of years ago there was no evidence that there were any salmonella bacteria in unopened, unfractured eggs. The organisms, especially salmonella enteritidis, often were present in flocks of chickens and were found on the outside of eggshells; so egg producers took great pains to clean them and cautioned against using any eggs that had been cracked. But the inside was felt to be safe.
By the late 1980s this attitude changed after an outbreak of salmonellosis in a New England nursing home that killed several people was traced to unbroken eggs.
Here are some rules for playing it safe with salmonella from the American Egg Board and the Egg Nutrition Center:
* Store eggs, chicken and any raw meat in the refrigerator. Salmonella bacteria do not reproduce at temperatures less than 40 degrees.
* Cook all eggs and products incorporating raw eggs to an internal temperature of at least 140 degrees. This means "soft"-cooked eggs should be boiled for 7 minutes, poached eggs cooked in boiling water 5 minutes, scrambled eggs cooked until firm throughout and sunnyside and fried eggs until the white is completely coagulated and firm and yolk is thickened and no longer runny (140 degrees).
* Chicken should be thoroughly cooked until all traces of pink are gone and juices, if any, run clear.
* Don't use cracked eggs.
* Do not use raw eggs in salad dressing, undercooked custard (as used for homemade ice creams), egg nog or mousse. Restaurants often use pasteurized liquid eggs, which generally are not available to home cooks. In some cases egg substitutes may be used.
* Eat eggs promptly after cooking. Do not hold them warm for more than two hours. Refrigerate unused or leftover egg-containing foods promptly.
* Any utensils, measuring tools, bowls or work surfaces that come into contact with raw eggs (or raw chicken) should be cleaned thoroughly before using for other food products, especially any food that will not be thoroughly cooked. This applies particularly to blenders used to scramble eggs or egg sauces.