About a year ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the emergency room with what turned out to be salmonella poisoning. My first thought when I heard the diagnosis: Did she pick up the infection from our flock of chickens? But the public-health outreach worker at the local department of health said that was unlikely.
While eggs are indeed a leading cause of salmonella poisoning, the bacteria that causes the infection may be more likely to breed in the cramped confines of factory farms than in free-range, backyard chicken runs like ours. And people tend to eat home grown eggs when they’re fresher, and thus less likely to be contaminated*.
That was reassuring since one of the main reasons we raise our own eggs is they somehow seem healthier to us. Since they feed mainly on bugs and our table scraps, we know what they’re eating. And since we let them range free we know they’re treated humanely. Plus, they just taste better and the brown and even green and blue eggs we get from our different breeds make every day look like Easter.
But in truth, all eggs can be good nutritional choices, containing not only protein but also vitamin D and choline, a nutrient recently linked to a reduced risk of birth defects and possibly breast cancer. While eggs are relatively high in dietary cholesterol, most people can eat about six a week without worry. Even those of us with high cholesterol levels can safely consume them in moderation, as long as they watch out for other sources of cholesterol. And in early July, the Food and Drug Administration announced new rules aimed at reducing salmonella contamination in store-bought eggs are contaminated with salmonella.
Eggs can become contaminated when a laying hen is infected with salmonella enteritidis and passes the bacteria to the egg before it is laid. If the egg is not refrigerated, the bacteria can grow inside the uncracked, whole egg. So the new rules place greater restrictions on large farms—those with 3,000 or more laying hens—to ensure the hens are raised in environs free of pests that can spread the bacteria, and that eggs are refrigerated when they’re stored and transported, to prevent the bacteria from growing. The FDA says that the measures are expected to prevent nearly 80,000 salmonella-related illnesses, and 30 deaths, each year.
Buying and storing
In addition to the new safety measures being taken by industry, consumers can reduce their risk of foodborne illness by following a few simple steps. When buying and storing eggs:
- Only buy refrigerated eggs.
- Open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells are not cracked.
- Refrigerate the eggs promptly after purchase.
Ideally, however they’re cooked, both the yolk and the whites should be firm.
- Casseroles and other dishes containing eggs should be cooked to 160°F (72°C). Use a food thermometer to be sure.
- For recipes that call for eggs that are raw or undercooked when the dish is served, such as homemade Caesar salad or ice cream, use pasteurized egg products.
- Serve eggs and dishes that contain them immediately after cooking.
- For buffet-style serving, hot egg dishes should be kept hot, and cold egg dishes kept cold.
- Eggs and egg dishes, such as quiches or soufflés, may be refrigerated for serving later but should be thoroughly reheated to 165°F (74°C) before serving.
- Use hard-cooked eggs (in the shell or peeled) within 1 week after cooking.
- Refrigerate leftover cooked egg dishes and use within 3-4 days. When refrigerating a large amount of a hot egg-containing leftover, divide it into several shallow containers so it will cool quickly.
Watch for the signs of salmonella poisoning, including abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. For more tips on egg safety, go the FDA’s Web site. And for a guide to the difference between cage-free, free-range, and organic eggs, read our report on all the wide variety of eggs now sold in the supermarket.
By the way, the health department official who called me up said the most likely source of my daughter’s salmonella poisoning was our pet turtle. That critter is now gone. But I’m picking up four new hens from my neighbor down the road later this week.
—Joel Keehn, senior editor
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