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The incredible, inedible egg

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:

Danger!

If you eat one raw egg a day for 55 years, you might get sick - once.

But thank goodness the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is here to save us from worrisome egg peril.

Starting Sept. 4, a set of new food safety rules for eggs will take effect. They are a result of a Clinton-era goal of making the country safe for eggs.

One of these new rules will bear similarities to the U.S. surgeon general's health warning stamped on cigarette packs. This one requires that all egg cartons on supermarket shelves carry the following caution:

"SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly."

Possible implications for the hearty American breakfast are striking. These new regulations could mean a virtual death knell for at least two culinary institutions: sunny-side-up eggs and eggs over easy.

No doubt large restaurant chains will begin adding disclaimers to their menus to protect themselves from litigious eaters of runny eggs.

And what about raw cookie dough? Tread carefully.

Homemade ice cream? It's not good for you, anyway.

Eggnog? Have a not-so-merry Christmas.

But is there justification for suddenly regarding the egg, once thought of as the perfect food, as ovular biohazard? Hardly.

With a death rate of no more than five people a year, you take a greater risk driving to the store to purchase those eggs. That risk more than doubles if you drive to the store to purchase those eggs during a lightning storm.

The true villain is salmonella bacteria, the nation's leading cause of food poisoning. Anyone who's had it won't forget the symptoms: nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and headaches. Those symptoms are most severe and sometimes even fatal in infants, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

But only a fraction of all salmonella cases are caused by eggs, which lay claim to only one strain called Salmonella enteritidis. Poultry, fish, pork and beef can carry other salmonella strains.

Admittedly, some regulations affecting the refrigeration and processing of eggs that were adopted in recent years have made sense. But any further regulations seem like overkill when already the egg industry is reporting a 48 percent drop in the number of salmonella enteritidis cases over the last four years.

Memories are long, though, and many people still remember the 1994 outbreak of egg-related salmonella, when thousands of people across the country became ill after eating contaminated Schwan's ice cream.

That experience alone provided enough incentive for consumers and producers to start treating the egg with a little more respect - without the government telling them to.



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