Health experts unscramble egg handling mix-up

March 13, 1991|By Gerald Etter | Gerald Etter,Knight-Ridder News Service

It's been nearly three years since Salmonella enteritidis food poisoning was linked with raw or undercooked eggs, and consumers appear as confused about proper egg handling now as they were when the report was released.

Cooks who once prided themselves on homemade mayonnaise have put away their whisks and turned to store-bought versions of the spread. Other homemade specialties, such as Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce, eggnogs and custards have also fallen into disfavor.

While it's important to recognize the potential danger inherent in eggs, the consumer should also be aware that proper food handling and preparation will virtually eliminate health risks.

"The official word," said Margaret Webb, a public affairs officer with the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, "is to cook your eggs. Don't use recipes that call for uncooked eggs, like ice cream, or crack an egg in a milkshake. Simply don't do it.

"We know that an infected hen can lay an egg with Salmonella in it. It doesn't happen all the time, only periodically. Before, the only transmission [of Salmonella] we knew about was through a cracked egg, or by the [person preparing a particular egg dish]."

The report appeared in the April 1988 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It warned that raw or undercooked eggs appeared to be responsible for outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis food poisoning.

The report was based on studies of 65 food-borne outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis in northeast states affecting 2,119 people and causing 11 deaths between January 1985 and May 1987. The study also raised the possibility that the Salmonella enters -- the egg yolk before the egg shell is formed so any shell cleaning would not eliminate it.

Although outbreaks of Salmonella-caused illnesses have not been widespread and seem contained within the eastern sections of the United States, the federal government still considers the issue a serious one.

Earlier this month, the USDA established a task force to help control the spread of egg-related Salmonella. The program is a two-pronged one: The testing and certification of laying chickens and the tracing to any flocks implicated in human cases of Salmonella enteritidis.

In 1990, Ms. Webb said, there were 67 outbreaks of Salmonella illness reported. Of those, eggs were implicated in 21 of the 65 cases where an investigation was able to determine the food sources.

More than 70 percent of the outbreaks occurred in New England, Middle-Atlantic and South-Atlantic states. One of the larger outbreaks affected 500 of 2,000 conventioneers who attended a dinner in Chicago in October, where the cause was traced to an egg wash on a bread pudding that was allowed to sit at room temperature for a long period of time.

There were no deaths attributed to any of the egg-related outbreaks.

Two of the outbreaks occurred in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and one each in New Jersey and Delaware. The largest was in Pennsylvania, which in mid-August involved eight reported egg-related Salmonella incidents in five restaurants operated by a chain.

Kathy McCharen, vice president of the Egg Nutrition Center, an egg industry association, said 95 percent of all the reported outbreaks are caused by abuses at the food service level. "When hundreds of eggs are pre-broken and mixed together and allowed to sit around and used for anything from omelets to french toast, there's a chance for bacteria to grow and multiply."

Ms. McCharen said the consumer should start with a fresh, high-quality egg and keep it refrigerated. When prepared individually and promptly consumed, she said, there is no time for bacteria to multiply.

Susan Templin, who manages the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline ([800] 535-4555), advises consumers to cook eggs thoroughly for optimal safety.

"The yolk should be firm," Ms. Templin said. "People can choose to eat eggs with a more runny center, but we advise that for people at risk, for optimal safety the yolk should be firm."

Ms. Templin described people at risk as the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and those whose immune systems have been compromised due to illness. It should be noted that for adults who are not at risk, who are in good health otherwise, a bout of Salmonella is uncomfortable but not dangerous.

The American Egg Board, another industry association, claims that many cooking recommendations passed on to consumers are actually more appropriate for the food-service industry.

An egg board memo states that it's not necessary for consumers to prepare egg dishes to the stage of hard-cooked eggs. Instead, it recommends cooking them to the point where the whites are completely coagulated and the yolks begin to thicken. They should be no longer runny, but need not be hard.

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