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Cracking Down on Eggs

Use common sense

WebMD Feature

Oct. 23, 2000 -- In recent years, the reputation of eggs has gone from fluffy goodness to hardboiled menace, thanks to their link to salmonella infection. Today, many restaurants refuse to serve eggs sunny-side up, cookbooks eliminate raw eggs from recipes for Caesar salad, and supermarkets stock cholesterol-free, pasteurized egg products.


Breakfasters everywhere are confused and afraid. Are eggs bad for me? Will they make me sick? Should I stop eating them? Is anything safe anymore?


Relax. Before you scratch eggs off your shopping list for good, let's look at the facts.


The Salmonella scare emerged in 1985 when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers first found the bacteria Salmonella enteritidis not just on the outer shells of eggs, but also inside them. The odds of buying such eggs are extremely low, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- one in 20,000. The problem is, there's no way to tell which ones are infected. To be safe, in July the FDA recommended that eggs be kept refrigerated and used within 30 days of purchase.

What Can Go Wrong?

Salmonella infection can range from mild to severe, but its symptoms are usually clear: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, or headache. These typically appear anywhere from six to 72 hours after you eat a salmonella-tainted meal, leaving you to wonder, was it the chicken? The burger? The eggs in the no-bake cheesecake?


In fact, it could be any of them, or it could have been from salmonella lurking on your kitchen sponge. That's because salmonella is everywhere -- not just in eggs. Chances are that if you tested, you'd find the pesky bacteria on your fingertips right now. Not a problem if you have a normal immune system, which can fight off the infection in a day or two. But it can lead to serious complications for the very young, the pregnant, the elderly, the ill, and those with weakened immune function.


Unlike most other high-protein foods such as chicken and beef, eggs have protection from invasion by these ever-present bacteria, thanks to their natural packaging. An egg is composed of the shell (which is lined by two membranes), the white (which has antibacterial properties), a tough yolk membrane, and finally the yolk itself. So why all the fuss? Because the bacteria may already be inside.

Inside the Egg

Until 1985, researchers thought bacteria lurking on the shell surface was the most likely source of salmonella contamination in eggs. Today, this risk is minimized because eggshells are washed and sterilized during processing. But researchers were surprised in the mid-'80s by a new finding -- salmonella lurking in the yolk membrane itself. These bacteria are literally born in the egg, entering from the infected ovaries of the laying hen, says Bessie Berry, manager of the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline. An added problem for the farmer is that the laying hen does not appear sick in any way.

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