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Cracking Down on Eggs

Use common sense

Inside the Egg continued...

 

The birds can become infected with salmonella in two ways: Either they're born from an infected mother hen, or they pick up salmonella along the way, perhaps when an unlucky fly lands on the hen's food tray and is gobbled up. Farm eggs and free-range eggs are not immune from contamination either, says Berry.

 

Testing the laying hens is the only way to determine infection. But testing is a staggering task when you take into account the numbers: There is one laying hen for every man, woman, and child in the United States -- about 260 million birds, according to FDA statistics. Finding the one infected egg in 20,000 is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, the FDA will require testing of commercial flocks -- the ones who lay the eggs for market -- by 2001.

 

"People think it won't happen to them, but it can," Berry says. Better to assume bacterial organisms are there and act accordingly.

Steps to Protect

Even if salmonella bacteria are within the egg, they still have to gain access to the nutrient-rich yolk to multiply -- a process hindered when the egg is fresh and the yolk membrane is intact. At that stage, the number of bacteria is very small. Refrigeration provides additional protection by limiting bacterial growth and preventing the breakdown of the membrane. So your best bet is to buy fresh eggs -- check the sell-by date on the carton, if there is one -- and keep them in the fridge. Also, make sure to use them within four weeks of purchase.

 

Eggs that are cracked into a bowl, beaten together, and allowed to sit also present a risk. "If the bacteria are there, they will multiply to high levels very quickly at room temperature," says Berry. For this reason, she recommends cooking eggs within two hours of cracking them.

 

But bacteria already in the egg don't cause all cases of salmonella infection. Contamination can also occur in your kitchen. Salmonella-free eggs may not stay that way if you whisk them with a fork that was also used to handle contaminated raw poultry, for example. "Remember to wash everything, including your hands, that has come into contact with raw food before handling something that won't be cooked," Berry says.

Cook Them Well or Use Pasteurized Eggs

In the rare chance that you do buy an egg contaminated with salmonella bacteria, there's some reassuring news: Cooking kills the bacteria. There is no way for you to know at home if the egg is contaminated -- the egg won't look, smell, or taste different from any other egg, says Marjorie Davidson, a food safety education expert at the FDA. Because of this, she recommends cooking all eggs thoroughly: Salmonella bacteria are killed at temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Both the FDA and USDA recommend cooking raw (unpasteurized) eggs until the yolks and whites are completely firm.

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