When salmonella outbreaks occurred from eating tainted spinach or peanut butter, we knew that, short of avoiding these foods, we couldn't do much to reduce our risk. That's because the bacteria—responsible for 40,000 reported cases of food poisoning each year—can only be killed with high heat, and who wants to cook salad and peanut butter? But the big news this week about salmonella outbreaks linked to eggs—380 million have been recalled and counting—should serve as a wakeup call for prevention. Sure, our government must investigate what's going on in the henhouse, but we should also remember to treat raw eggs like raw chicken: wash our hands after handling them and only eat them when they're cooked.
Sounds simple right? After all, most of us, save for Rocky wannabes, don't gulp a glass of raw eggs for breakfast. But we do make eggnog with uncooked eggs. (Thank goodness it isn't holiday season.) And many of us can't resist licking cake batter or sampling cookie dough. Plus, let's not forget the dressing and sauce recipes that call for raw eggs: Caesar salad dressing; Béarnaise sauce; Hollandaise sauce; mayonnaise. Restaurant fare that contains undercooked or mishandled eggs, however, may be trickier to avoid. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that California high school students developed severe stomach aches in May after eating custard-filled pastries at a catered prom dinner, while a woman in Wisconsin got a high fever and diarrhea after eating a Cobb salad; in both cases, the eggs in their food came from the same farm in Galt, Iowa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it received nearly 2,000 reports of salmonella poisoning from May through July compared with the usual 700 cases seen in previous years, which spurred the agency to start investigating, and led to this week's massive egg recall.
While sometimes it's impossible to avoid contracting salmonella from eggs, taking precautions can help lower your risk. The CDC offers some basic prevention tips on its website like keeping eggs refrigerated at all times, discarding cracked or dirty eggs, and washing hands, utensils, and surfaces after contact with raw eggs. But some of the agency's tips need a little more clarity. These include:
1. "Eggs should be cooked until both the white and the yolk are firm." In other words, solid. Avoid soft-boiled eggs, runny scrambled eggs, and eggs prepared sunny side up.
2. "Refrigerate unused or leftover egg-containing foods promptly." No, that doesn't mean you have to refrigerate every loaf of bread, cake, or muffin that's baked with eggs. But you should store the egg salad, casseroles, and quiches at once, or at the very least, don't leave them outside the fridge for more than two hours.
3. "Avoid eating raw eggs." That means no raw cake batter, cookie dough, or Rocky-style shakes. Got that?
4. "Avoid restaurant dishes made with raw or undercooked, unpasteurized eggs." This may be a bit tough because it requires you to grill your waitress, who may have to go into the kitchen to ask the chef, who may be less than thrilled. But it's certainly important, since restaurants tend to be a prime source of food poisoning outbreaks. Ask if any sauces or dressings that traditionally use raw eggs, such as Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing, use pasteurized eggs; these, like the egg whites you buy in a carton, are heated to temperatures high enough to kill salmonella. Otherwise avoid them. Be sure to also check the dessert menu: mousse, meringue, and tiramisu sometimes also contain uncooked eggs.