As the recall of eggs contaminated with salmonella remains in the headlines—half a billion eggs have been pulled off of shelves—many of us are looking for safer alternatives. Some are turning to local farmers’ markets, while others are buying only eggs labeled "organic" or "cage-free" much to the delight of specialty egg producers who say they’ve seen a bump in sales. But will such precautions actually protect us from food poisoning? US News posed this question and others to food safety experts.
Are organic eggs less likely to carry salmonella? What about those sold on farm stands?
"I've not seen any evidence suggesting that these eggs are any safer," says Martin Wiedmann, an associate professor of food microbiology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Although many of us buy specialty eggs for ethical reasons, some new buyers may be having a "gut-level reaction" to news that the contaminated eggs came from giant industrial farms, he says; it's akin to assuming that cars are a safer mode of transport than planes whenever we hear about a jetliner crash. No doubt, hens raised on organic farms live more enjoyable lives—they aren't confined to cages and are free to wander—but studies haven't shown that well-treated hens are any less likely to carry and transmit salmonella to the eggs they lay. In fact, some studies indicate that they may be more likely to be exposed to the bacteria, often found in dust on the henhouse floor, than hens confined to battery cages, which don't touch the ground. What's more, a recent study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture found that eggs from "cage-free" hens were more likely to contain chemical contaminants, probably from the soil in fields where the hens were allowed to graze.
The government says its new egg safety rules—had they been in place earlier—would have prevented this outbreak; is that true?
"It's true to a point," says Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign at Pew Health Group, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. The new rule, implemented by the Food and Drug Administration, requires large egg producers (with at least 3,000 laying hens) to buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who routinely test for salmonella; to practice stringent control of rodents and pests that carry the bacteria; and to check their own hens and eggs regularly for salmonella, taking immediate steps to disinfect if contamination is found. That's all great in theory, but Eskin says the FDA still doesn't have the money or manpower to regularly inspect these facilities to make sure they're following the rules. And the agency still doesn't have the authority to order food recalls, like they order toy and medical device recalls. (Food manufacturers voluntarily recall suspect items.) The FDA says that it will conduct thorough inspections of the Iowa facilities involved in the egg recall before it allows the producers to put their eggs back on the market.
What precautions should you take when buying eggs?
Buy only eggs that are sold from a refrigerator or refrigerated case, recommends the FDA. That's not always the case with those sold on farm stands. Also, open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and the shells aren't cracked. Fecal matter smeared on eggs (yes, it does occur) and cracked shells make it easier for salmonella and other bacteria to spread.
What should you do with the eggs already in your refrigerator?
Check the carton to see if the codes stamped on the back match the recall codes listed on this government website. "Even if you've eaten eggs already from that carton and haven't gotten sick, check anyway," says Wiedmann. "Not every egg that's recalled has salmonella; you can have eggs in the carton that contain it and other eggs that don't." If you have a carton that's been recalled, throw it away or take it back to the store for a refund.
If your eggs aren't part of the recall, can you rest easy?
Actually, you can never assume that fresh eggs are bacteria-free unless they've been pasteurized. That means you should avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs—no raw cookie dough, cake batter, or soft-boiled eggs—and always wash your hands after handling raw eggs.
Do you need medical treatment if you think you've been infected with salmonella?
Your doctor could prescribe antibiotics, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most people recover without any drug treatment. Symptoms like fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea can be nasty but usually disappear within a week. The most important thing is to prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids. And avoid preparing food for others, since the bacteria can be spread from person to person. Although some foodborne illnesses are associated with high rates of hospitalization and death, salmonella only causes life-threatening symptoms in rare cases. Out of 1.4 million Americans who become infected every year, says Wiedmann, only about 500 people die from it.