Aug. 20, 2010 -- It's the biggest egg recall in recent memory. Eggs contaminated with salmonella have sickened thousands of Americans.
What do you need to know? Here is WebMD's FAQ on the ongoing egg recall and salmonella outbreak.
Why are the eggs being recalled?
As early as April, states began noticing an unusual number of cases of salmonella food poisoning due to Salmonella enteritidis or SE. In recent years, SE has become the most common cause of salmonella infections in the U.S. It's predominantly found in eggs.
Aided by the CDC, health departments in 10 states identified 25 SE outbreaks among people who ate at the same restaurant or event where food was served. Fifteen of these restaurants served eggs traced to a single firm in Iowa, Wright County Egg.
However, on Aug. 20, a second Iowa firm -- Hillandale Farms of New Hampton -- issued a recall of eggs because of lab-confirmed illnesses associated with the eggs.
The FDA expects the recall to expand.
How many people are sick?
As of mid-July, the CDC had 2,000 confirmed reports of SE illness -- 1,300 more cases than usual for this time of year.
Most cases of salmonella do not get reported. The CDC usually calculates that for every reported case, 38 people are sickened. That would mean that the outbreak may already have sickened some 76,000 Americans. And the CDC expects to receive more reports before the outbreak is over.
The FDA says it's the biggest outbreak in recent history. But perspective is needed. The FDA calculates that there are 141,990 egg-related SE illnesses each year in the U.S.
The FDA calculates that about 91% of salmonella cases are mild -- that is, don't require a doctor visit and get better in one to three days. About 8% of cases are moderate, requiring a doctor visit and two to 12 days for recovery. And just over 1% of cases are severe, requiring hospitalization and 11 to 21 days for recovery. A small number of patients die.
Moreover, 3.7% of patients have lingering arthritis even after their other salmonella symptoms resolve. For 2.4% of patients, this arthritis lasts for a year or longer.
Do I have contaminated eggs in my refrigerator?
Maybe. About half a billion eggs, sold under at least 16 different brand names, have been recalled. The egg industry has posted an updated list of recalled egg brands and their identifying package details.
So far, all of the recalled eggs were packaged on Aug. 17 or earlier. This means that the "sell by" dates stamped on the egg cartons may not yet have expired. (The packing date is stamped on the egg carton using the "Julian date" or the numbered day of the year. Jan. 1 is Julian date 1; Aug. 17 is Julian date 229, as 2010 is not a leap year).
Two previous recalls were issued by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, on Aug. 13 and Aug. 18. On Aug. 20, Hillandale Farms of Iowa issued a third recall.
Hundreds of millions of eggs would make a lot of omelets. But the recalled eggs actually represent less than 1% of the U.S. egg supply. The U.S. produces around 67 billion eggs each year. About 47 billion are sold in the shell as table eggs; the rest are processed into products such as pasta, cake mix, ice cream, mayonnaise, and baked goods.
The huge size of the farm linked to the salmonella outbreak isn't unusual. More than 4,000 U.S. farms have 3,000 or more laying hens that produce about 90 eggs per 100 hens per day. About 17% of farms in the states that produce the most eggs (California in the west; Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Pennsylvania in the east) have more than 30,000 laying hens.
On the other hand, the FDA estimates that each year, U.S. farms distribute 2.3 million eggs filled with salmonella. The CDC estimates that one in 50 consumers is exposed to a contaminated egg each year.
Unfortunately, an egg contaminated with salmonella appears normal.
Here's the FDA's advice on how to identify the recalled eggs:
On the carton of eggs in your refrigerator, look for:
- Plant numbers — the four-digit plant number can be found on the short side of the carton. The numbers are preceded by the letter P (see graphic).
- Julian date — eggs are packaged with the Julian date on the short side of the carton after the plant number (see graphic). The Julian date tells what day of the year the eggs were packaged without the month, so Jan. 1 is 001, and Dec. 31 is 365.
Hillandale Farms egg cartons affected by the recall will have these numbers:
- P1860 – Julian dates ranging from 099 to 230
- P1663 – Julian dates ranging from 137 to 230
The Wright County Farms eggs that are being recalled are:
- P1720 and P1942 – with Julian dates ranging from 136 to 229
- P1026, 1413,1946 – with Julian dates ranging from 136 to 225
The companies have identified more than 16 brand names under which the eggs were sold, but that information is incomplete. Some eggs were sold individually rather than in cartons, so they could be repackaged under other brands.
Eggs affected by the recall have been shipped since May 16 to grocery distribution sites, retail grocery stores, food wholesalers, distribution centers, and food service companies nationwide.
If you have recalled eggs, throw them away or return them to the retailer for a refund. If you are unsure about the source of your eggs, throw them away.
How do eggs get contaminated with salmonella?
It once was thought that salmonella on the surface of eggs penetrated the shell and infected the egg contents. That's possible, so it's a good idea to wash your hands after touching eggs. But it's now becoming clear that a hen infected with salmonella can carry the bacteria in its ovaries and oviducts. The eggs become infected with salmonella as they are forming, and carry the bacteria inside their shells.
Interestingly, the site of contamination is usually -- but not always -- the egg white.
Not every hen at the same farm carries salmonella, and not every egg laid by an infected hen carries the bug.
Hens get salmonella mainly from germs carried by flies and from eating the excrement of rodents that get into their feed. New FDA regulations -- which ironically went into effect on July 9, well after the current salmonella outbreak began -- are expected to cut the number of salmonella-carrying eggs by 60%.
Meanwhile, thorough cooking kills salmonella. Cooking an egg until both the egg white and egg yolk are solid will kill salmonella in the egg.
What are the symptoms of Salmonella Enteritidis infection?
Infants, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems may get very severe diarrhea and require hospitalization.
How is Salmonella Enteritidis treated?
Fortunately, most cases of SE get better without any treatment other than drinking fluids to replace those lost to diarrhea.
More severe diarrhea will require fluid and electrolyte replacement.
What can I do to avoid salmonella illness from eggs?
Here's the CDC's advice:
- Don’t eat recalled eggs or products containing recalled eggs. Recalled eggs might still be in grocery stores, restaurants, and homes. Consumers who have recalled eggs should discard them or return them to their retailer for a refund.
- People who think they might have become ill from eating recalled eggs should consult their health care providers.
- Keep eggs refrigerated at least to 45 degrees F at all times.
- Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
- Wash hands, cooking utensils, and food preparation surfaces with soap and water after contact with raw eggs.
- Eggs should be cooked until both the white and the yolk are firm and eaten promptly after cooking.
- Do not keep eggs warm or at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Refrigerate unused or leftover egg-containing foods promptly.
- Avoid eating raw eggs.
- Avoid restaurant dishes made with raw or undercooked, unpasteurized eggs. Restaurants should use pasteurized eggs in any recipe (such as Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing) that calls for raw eggs.
- Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs should be avoided, especially by young children, elderly people, and people with weakened immune systems or debilitating illness.