Nutrition Action Healthletter
July/August 1997 — U.S. Edition


EGGS -- No Yolking Matter

"Eggs used to be safe," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"Without worrying, parents could let their children lick the bowl when they made cookies and cakes from scratch. People could eat raw or undercooked eggs in Caesar salad dressing, egg nog, stuffing, or softboiled or sunny-side up eggs."

Now they're taking a risk.

More than two decades ago, a strain of Salmonella bacteria called enteritidis found its way into the ovaries of chickens and then into their eggs. Experts estimate that one in every 10,000 eggs -- or about 4.5 million eggs each year -- is infected with Salmonella.

Unfortunately, there's no way to know which eggs. And for some, eating the wrong egg can mean more than an upset stomach.

The Toll

Diarrhea. Abdominal pain. Nausea. Vomiting. Fever. Chills. The symptoms of Salmonella food poisoning can strike anyone. But they're more likely to hit three groups: the elderly; children; and people with HIV, cancer, or other diseases that impair the immune system.

WHAT TO DO

  • Refrigerate eggs promptly, keep in their original carton, and use within one or two weeks.
  • Wash your hands, utensils, and work areas with hot, soapy water mmediately after handling raw eggs.
  • Don't eat cake batter or raw cookie dough that contains raw eggs.
  • Thoroughly cook egg dishes like French toast or omelets.
  • Use only egg substitutes for Caesar salad dressing, homemade mayonnaise, and eggnog.

"They're less able to fight off the bacteria," says Smith DeWaal.

And when those people get food poisoning, they are more likely to suffer from serious complications like rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, or kidney or heart disease. To some, an undercooked egg can be deadly.

Between 1988 and 1992, 85 percent of the reported deaths from Salmonella enteritidis were elderly residents of nursing homes.

And many more may have gone unreported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Salmonella enteritidis:

  • was responsible for more food poisoning outbreaks than any other source from 1987 through 1992,
  • probably sickens 200,000 to a million people a year, and
  • probably kills 200 to 5,000 people a year.
Contaminated eggs account for 80 percent of those illnesses. And the worst part is: It doesn't have to happen.

Shell Game

"Since the early 1980s, the problem of contaminated shell eggs has ballooned out of control," says Smith DeWaal. "The CDC reported five times as many cases in 1995 as in 1980." Here's why:

  • In 1986, the CDC first identified contaminated eggs from farms in the Northeast as the culprits in Salmonella enteritidis outbreaks.

  • In 1987, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided not to require a Salmonella enteritidis control program for eggs. Instead, it opted for a voluntary program.

  • In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring eggs to be refrigerated during transportation and storage, but the USDA never enforced it.

  • In 1991, the USDA put an inadequate mandatory program in place. Instead of requiring on-farm testing by all egg producers, it required producers to clean up their farms only if investigators could trace contaminated eggs back to them.

  • In 1995, under pressure from the egg industry, Congress killed the USDA's funding for the traceback program, and for a successful pilot program in Pennsylvania that required on-farm testing.
"With quick action, the contaminated egg problem might have been stopped by the late 1980s," says CSPI staff attorney Elizabeth Dahl.

"Instead, government watchdogs have been asleep as more and more people are getting sick."

GET CRACKIN'

To: Donna Shalala, Secretary
Dept. of Health & Human Services
200 lndependence Ave. S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201

From: ___________________________________________

Eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis (SE) cause hundreds -- and probably thousands -- of deaths each year. The FDA should require all egg producers to adopt an SE on-farm control program like the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program. Furthermore, the FDA should inspect shell egg plants for safety at least several times a year. Finally, the FDA should require all egg cartons to cary a warning label to urge consumers not to eat raw eggs and to cook eggs until the yolks are firm.


[CSPI's Scrambled Eggs Report] [Nutrition Actin Healthletter] [CSPI U.S.] Nutrition Action Healthletter