30 March 2010

Is it safe to eat raw eggs?

Mayonnaise, Caesar salad, chocolate mousse – some of our best loved recipes call for uncooked eggs. But, with its susceptibility to bacteria, is it wise to eat raw eggs?

Many traditional recipes call for uncooked eggs - just think of mayonnaise, Caesar salad, chocolate mousse, spaghetti carbonara, eggnog, and the simple pleasure of dunking toast in soft-boiled eggs. However, we also know that raw foods can be very susceptible to harmful bacteria, so, is it wise at all to eat raw eggs?

Simply put, raw eggs can carry salmonella, bacteria that can cause serious food poisoning, even death. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites infected eggs as contributing to 40% of reported food poisoning cases in Europe.

The Food and Drug Administration is pretty clear on the matter, telling people eggs should be fully cooked until both the yolks and the whites are firm. They tell people not to eat or even taste any foods that may contain raw or undercooked eggs.

 To be fair, however, any raw food can be contaminated. After all, salmonella is what triggered the massive peanut butter recall in the US last year.

Very young, elderly and pregnant people

Of course the risks are highest among the very young, the very elderly, and people who are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, says Catherine Donnelly, a professor and expert on the microbiology of food safety at the University of Vermont. Healthy adults may get sick from salmonella, but Donnelly says they are unlikely to die.

Still, not dying is a pretty low bar to set for dinner. Is it worth it?

Charles Reeves, chef and owner of Penny Cluse Café, a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, known for its from-scratch breakfasts and lunches, certainly thinks so.

"You can't own a restaurant and call yourself a chef if you're using mayonnaise out of a bottle," he says. "It's just too easy to make it better yourself."

In Reeves' kitchen, the ubiquitous dressing (made with raw yolks and sometimes the whites) is prepared daily and used on numerous sandwiches. Raw eggs also show up in the base for several other dressings and sauces.

Farm fresh not always bacteria free

Although his customers' safety is a primary concern, Reeves does not think twice about using raw eggs, including serving them over easy and sunny side up.

"You just always have to use absolutely fresh eggs that come from a reputable source," he says.

But Todd Pritchard, a food scientist at the University of Vermont, says farm fresh does not necessarily mean bacteria free.

"Bacteria are blind," he says. "They don't see whether the eggs come from a local farmer or are free-range or organic."

Much depends on how the eggs and chickens have been handled, says Pritchard. An unhealthy chicken can have salmonella in its reproductive tract and the bacteria can end up on the shell or even inside the egg.

Luckily, says Donnelly, the egg industry got serious during the 1990s about salmonella.


Working closely with federal agriculture officials, major egg producers removed salmonella-infected hens from the laying population. Meanwhile, probiotics (healthy bacteria) were added to the feed to help make chickens more resistant to salmonella.

Still, Pritchard says an egg also can be contaminated by an external source on a farm or during the handling and shipping, including during storage or preparation at a restaurant.

According to the American Egg Board, the risk of an egg being contaminated with salmonella is only around 1 in 20 000. At this rate, an average consumer would encounter a contaminated egg once in 84 years.

Healthy immune system

Pritchard says that for an individual, assessing the risks of consuming raw eggs is not so cut and dry. While it is true that the likelihood of being sickened by an egg is low, it does matter, he points out, if you are the one who gets sick.

"It really all depends," says Pritchard, "on the immune status of the individual and the source of the egg."

So what's an egg eater to do?

For adult home cooks in good health, the minute risk of being sickened may be worth the joy of soft boiled eggs or homemade mayo. Ditto when dining out.

Pasteurised eggs

Still not so sure?  Why not try pasteurised eggs?

Since 2008 South Africans have been able to buy pasteurised, whole shell eggs, branded as "Safe Eggs" from retail outlets.

These eggs are pasteurised by means of microwave technology that was developed by researchers from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, in collaboration with the SA company Safe Eggs.

(Sources: AP and Health24)

(Compiled by Birgit Ottermann, Health24, March 2010)

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