On Bad Eggs

I’ve received quite a few emails asking about egg safety since I began this grand digression a week ago. Though I don’t want to get too deep into the subject — there are baked Alaskas to make — I do have a few thoughts.

I can remember being amazed and disappointed when, back in the late 80?s, the FDA announced that until further notice all raw eggs and poultry were going to be classified hazardous materials. It was the dawn of the day of Salmonella enteriditis. I remember thinking: this can’t be permanent, right? But alas it was (is), even though the odds of encountering a Salmonella-infected egg were, and remain, remote. At the height of the Salmonella scare, it was thought that one in every 10,000 eggs was infected. Most food safety experts today believe it’s more like one in every 20,000 or even 30,000. By comparison, up to one in every 7 chickens you take home from the market is thought to be infected with the bacteria.

Fortunately, a Salmonella infection is rarely the horror that a bad case of E. Coli can be. Most of the time the worst thing Salmonella does is keep you tied to nearest bathroom for a day or two. A case of E. Coli 0157:H7, by comparison, can kill you. In rare cases Salmonella has been known to cause more serious organ infections and a painful condition called Reiter’s syndrome, which can last for months or even years.

Yet the interesting thing about a Salmonella-infected egg is that it’s unlikely to do you much harm if you simply gobble it down à la Rocky. Why? Because most of the time there aren’t enough of the microbes in the egg to cause an infection. It’s when Salmonella are provided with the food, water, time, temperature, pH they need to grow that they become a threat. Salad dressings are the classic example, which is why you can’t get a really good Ceasar salad anymore. By comparison a simple omelet with a soft, custardy center probably won’t hurt you if you eat it hot out of the pan.

Yes, safety nuts, I will definitely admit that it’s always better to be safe than sorry where raw eggs are concerned, especially in a commercial setting. Still, freaking out over a little raw egg here or there doesn’t make much sense either.

6 thoughts on “On Bad Eggs”

  1. My favorite icing is one egg white beaten until it just breaks up, 200grams of icing sugar and 1tbsp of orange juice. I’ve been using it (and eating it) for years. Never made me sick.

    1. I’m not surprised. However I will say that there’s another factor working in your favor where this icing is concerned: all that sugar. Sugar is every bit as lethal to microbes as salt. Which is to say that it deprives them of the moisture they need to live and reproduce. The acid in the orange juice helps too!

      – Joe

  2. I was under the impression that you could wash the egg shell before you broke it and that would/could remove the bacteria and thus the potential danger. I love my omelets custardy and my caesar with an egg and make them this way at home all the time without any issues thus far.

    1. The odds of getting an infected egg in America are only about seven times greater than being struck by lightning. So I’m not surprised you haven’t had any problems. I read not long ago that if one person ate a dozen eggs every day of his/her life, he/she would encounter just one infected egg over that time.

      But washing the egg won’t affect the risk of salmonella — it’s on the inside. Washing eggs can eliminate the risks that come from accidentally consuming bird excrement, however. So I’m in favor of it. But be aware that washing shortens the life of eggs because it scrubs away the protective coating that prevents bacteria from getting in through the pores.

      Thanks for the email, Tamarack!

      – Joe

      1. I too learned in culinary school that Salmonella lives on the outside of the egg. If the chicken isn’t already infected (which most aren’t) then the bacteria can seep through the pores of the shell to infect the egg. I do understand that getting infected by this bacteria is rare but I too had the same information.

        Please note that Salmonella isn’t limited to poultry only; a huge carrier of this bacteria are roaches. Wash your countertops!

        1. Well said, Lisa! Keeping your surfaces clean and being careful to avoid cross-contamination is the way to prevent most foodbourne illnesses. Thanks for the note!

          – Joe

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