Whenever egg safety is discussed in our profession, it usually revolves around three topics: various controls and methods of protecting against Salmonella on the farm; the use of pasteurization or some other silver bullet to decontaminate shell eggs being brought to market; and, the third is our approach to egg safety in retail food establishments. None of these discussion points, however, are easily resolved or ever come to a definitive conclusion.
On the issue of protection on the farm, there is no mandatory set of national standards that fully satisfies consumer groups or the egg industry, and we really are not seeing anything being promulgated in the near future. There still exist numerous unrelated agencies involved with farm-to-fork oversight of shell eggs and egg products resulting in questionable continuity of safety oversight. The President’s Council on Food Safety has been looking at this issue for the past eight years with no real resolution. Indeed, there are numerous initiatives that, if finally implemented, would significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illness resulting from infected shell eggs. But until this becomes reality, we are still faced with a potentially hazardous food that historically we view a bit differently than a hamburger patty. We seem to be a bit more cavalier with eggs. There are some of us who are lucky enough to have found a farmer whose hen house is Salmonella-free, but the eggs do not come without a price. So, for the time being, we still must protect the consumer.
On the issue of shell egg decontamination, we are miles apart. As a nation, we consume close to 80 billion eggs a year, of which approximately 30% are in the form of processed egg products. For the most part, the processed eggs do not really enter the equation. We really enjoy our eggs in those cute little individual packages (otherwise known as shells). After all, civilization has grown accustomed to these incredible edibles without interruption for the past 5,000 years. That still leaves approximately 56 billion shell eggs requiring pasteurization or some other process that would render them free of Salmonella and safe to consume raw or partially cooked. In the best of all worlds, this is still decades, if not a century away from reality. So, while we wait on emerging technology to solve the egg safety problem, we still must protect the consumer. At this point, I think we all agree that a disease-free hen house is a bit more realistic and probably far more cost-effective.
Finally, if my calculations are correct in assuming that one in 20,000 eggs may be infected with Salmonella enteritidis, we’re looking at about four million eggs per year that have the potential of causing infection. And, if I read the literature correctly, this number continues along a slightly upward trend for a variety of reasons I best leave to others who are more knowledgeable about the global impact. Our concern is keeping those four million eggs from doing any harm on a local level—in a restaurant or at home. My public health colleagues and I realize that in spite of these figures and the lack of any uniform standards or cost-effective decontamination technology, the picture isn’t all that bleak.
Many of us don’t really mind the lottery odds of getting ill from eating raw or undercooked shell eggs. In fact, in terms of disease potential the odds are decidedly better than enjoying a rare hamburger gently seasoned with cow pat, or a plate of succulent bivalves harvested from the Calexico New River. We (and this includes the retail industry) continue to enjoy runny eggs for breakfast, freshly prepared hollandaise sauce on crisp, steamed vegetables and home-made eggnog for the holidays without unusual dire consequences. We don’t have large numbers of the population regularly succumbing to salmonellosis resulting from the consumption of raw or undercooked shell eggs; although, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are sporadic local outbreaks particularly affecting those who are vulnerable for some heightened risk of contracting an illness. While I don’t mean to understate the problem, or minimize its serious nature, we somehow do the best we can with what we have. At this point, we generally discuss methods of code enforcement.
To be sure, the restaurant and regulatory communities have managed to increase these odds in favor of safety through the application of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), employee awareness (including hand washing), regulatory oversight and good kitchen practices. However, when we sanitarians compare notes, we find shell eggs in virtually every type of restaurant we encounter, and we still come across shell egg handling and preparation practices that make us cringe and put a new meaning to the word “risk.” We also see some enforcement policies and practices that are totally contrived without scientific rhyme or reason.
We Don’t Have to Walk on Eggshells
Here is the conundrum. Shell eggs are a potentially hazardous food. But unlike chicken, sausage, cooked beans or egg products, it’s not easy to take the internal temperature of a shell egg without breaking it. Actually, we need to break several in keeping with good sampling protocol. An infrared thermometer is a useful tool for screening the external temperatures but measuring the actual internal temperatures is a bit elusive. We have to rely more heavily on time, observation of storage, preparation and handling, as well as use surrogates to evaluate shell egg safety than we are able to rely on any direct measurements—unless the eggs are out of their cute little containers. To be fair, we need to evaluate shell eggs with the same rigor as we do other potentially hazardous foods (PHFs). So, for all intent and purpose, here are some common-sense things we look for in our inspections to protect the consumer:
1. Shell eggs and HACCP are an excellent combination. Unfortunately, we don’t often see eggs in relationship to critical control points, largely because eggs are so versatile and, except for the breakfast entrée, are primarily used as ingredients. In those rare instances where we do see a working HACCP program for eggs, we know there is attention to detail and all PHFs are well managed at that facility.
2. In conducting a menu review, we look to see that egg safe recipes are used. This includes meringues and other egg dishes where the eggs are not hard cooked. We look for the same adequate cooking temperatures that are applied to all PHFs to be used any time when raw eggs are part of the ingredients (≤160°F).
3. We look to see that the eggs are clean, sound and odor-free. If eggs are used as a main ingredient, we encourage using only Grade AA or A eggs. While this is not necessarily essential, egg grades correspond to the age of the egg. The higher the grade, generally the fresher the egg. We also look for the pack date (≤28 days) and monitor on-site rotation using the first in, first out (FIFO) method.
4. We look to see that shell eggs are stored in their case and kept under refrigeration (≤45°F) at all times, from receipt to their ultimate use. We generally like seeing shell eggs stored in the same refrigeration units used to store dairy products. Storage conditions should be dry; egg flats or cartons that show signs of moisture contamination (both past and present) are highly suspect and we generally deem the eggs stored under these conditions as unsafe. More often than not, when we find flats or cartons that are wet and the eggs have been sitting in contact with the moisture for any time, we ask that they are voluntarily destroyed as a safety precaution.
As an aesthetic consideration, we encourage storing shell eggs away from strong odors. Since many strong odors (other than aromatic foods and foods such as fish, apples, cabbage and onions) are associated with chronic moisture and microbiological activity, this serves as a control for housekeeping and ensures that the eggs are always stored safely and that they taste like eggs.
5. Because temperature measurement of shell eggs is a bit more difficult than with other potentially hazardous foods, time becomes the critical factor in their safety. We look for assurances that exposure to room or higher temperatures is kept at a minimum. This includes proper handling of the shell eggs in recipes that call for eggs at room temperature and not stacking egg flats, or excessive number of eggs for that matter, near grills or stoves. While science teaches us that eggs should not be kept at room temperature for more than two hours, as a rule of thumb, shell eggs that have been removed from refrigeration should be used within an hour to ensure an extra margin of safety. This really is a good rule for any egg dish, and the hour limit at room temperature includes preparation and service time.
6. Where shell eggs are handled, we look for clean, sanitized equipment, utensils and surfaces; paying special attention to any possibility for cross contamination. Reusing a container after it has had a raw egg mixture in it, is poor practice. Containers should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before reuse. Of course, hand washing is always critical when handling shell eggs.
We frown on pooling or combining eggs, or using any eggs that are cracked, chipped or broken, or washing shell eggs before use. For most restaurants, we encourage cooking scrambled eggs in small batches according to rate of service. This generally means batches no larger than three quarts, plus or minus.
7. We look to see that raw whites are not stored longer than four days and unbroken raw yolks, covered with water, no longer than two days in a tightly sealed container. Cooked yolks can be stored under refrigeration in a tightly sealed container for up to four or five days. Hard-cooked eggs should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking and used within a week.
All cold egg dishes should be held at an internal temperature below 40°F and hot egg dishes above 140°F for no longer than 30 minutes (one hour on a buffet line). We look askance at combining eggs that have been held in a steam table pan with a fresh batch of eggs. And, we expect that a fresh steam table pan is used for each batch. (In the case of Chinese eggs such as Hulidan, Dsaudan and Pidan eggs, where the eggs are not retained in their original state, but rather converted into an entirely different food, we look to see that fresh eggs are used. Likewise with pickled eggs).
8. Finally, even though we prefer the use of egg products for ingredients, their safe storage is necessary to prevent bacterial contamination. We ensure that egg products are not refrozen after thawing and that they are thawed in the same manner as prescribed in the Food Code (in the refrigerator or under running water). We look that undated liquid egg products are not stored unopened for more than seven days, and once opened, that it is used within three days. Any U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Commodity Dried Egg Mix should be stored at less than 50 °F, preferably in the refrigerator (at 40°F or below) and used within seven to 10 days after opening.
So there you have the sanitarian’s view on egg safety. I would be remiss if I didn’t include three excellent references for those of you who want to learn more.The USDA’s fact sheet on eggs products and food safety issued in August 2006 is highly recommended (www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Egg_Products_and_Food_Safety/index.asp), as is the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)’s. Shell Eggs from Farm to Table fact sheet published in. May 2006(www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/
Focus_On_Shell_Eggs/index.asp. The American Egg Board also offers a wealth of information (www.aeb.org).
Forensic sanitarian Robert W. Powitz, Ph.D., MPH, RS, CFSP, is principal consultant and technical director of Old Saybrook, CT-based R.W. Powitz & Associates, a professional corporation of forensic sanitarians who specialize in environmental and public health litigation support services to law firms, insurance companies, governmental agencies and industry. Among his honors, Powitz was the recipient of the NSF/NEHA Walter F. Snyder Award for achievement in attaining environmental quality, and the AAS Davis Calvin Wagner Award for excellence as a sanitarian and advancing public health practice. He is the first to hold the title of Diplomate Laureate in the American Academy of Sanitarians. Dr. Powitz welcomes reader questions and queries. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.sanitarian.com.