Egg Recall Leaves Consumers Nervous

Hundreds of people have fallen ill after eating eggs contaminated with salmonella. The outbreak has led to one of the biggest egg recalls in American history. Wall Street Journal reporter Timothy Martin explains how to tell if your eggs are safe, and how to prevent food poisoning.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Today, the FDA said that there may be even more recalls of eggs in the coming days. A salmonella outbreak has people across the nation trading in orders of eggs sunny side up for well-done scrambled. The outbreak has spurred what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is calling the biggest egg recall in recent history. Nearly half a billion eggs have been recalled nationwide.

The FDA doesn't know yet how the eggs were contaminated. Are you worried about eating eggs? What are your questions about the recall and food safety? Our number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation, as always, on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Timothy Martin joins us now. He's a food retail reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and he joins us from his office in Chicago. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TIMOTHY MARTIN (Food Retail Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: When you think about cooking with eggs, there's always a risk of salmonella. What's different now?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, there - if you look at any points from May to July, which is what the CDC has in terms of their most accurate numbers, they say that there's typically 700 cases of salmonella. There's three times that this year. And what's unique is that it can be traced back to two big Iowa farms. One is called Red County Egg, and the other is called Hillandale Farms.

And for consumers out there, what's a little tricky is that this is not like Trix or Honey Nut Cheerios. These eggs coming from this big - egg plants or egg farm, they're distributed under a variety of brand names. So, for instance, if you're in Southern California, the eggs might be branded under Albertsons or Ralphs.

So for consumers looking to protect themselves against salmonella and wonder if their eggs, sitting in their refrigerator, are indeed potentially contaminated, they need to look at these little numbers on the side of the carton, called Julian dates. And they have - they sort of indicate when they were produced, and then also the plant number.

SEABROOK: And let me ask you this: Do people - do consumers just have to worry about eggs, or do they have to worry about other products that may have been made with those eggs, after the fact?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. This is not only your sunny-side egg in the breakfast with your toast. A number of people who have gotten sick have gotten sick from restaurants - whether it's meringue pies, whether it's salad dressing; you know, you could even get sick from salmonella if you were making cookies or a cake, and you decided to lick the batter off your fingers.

With salmonella, it's a relatively simple disease - or a simple bacteria to get rid of. You just have to well-cook the egg. But in any form of - sort of uncooked or raw egg, everything from, you know, a weightlifter who wants to eat raw eggs to build up their protein to - like I said - the salad dressing, you are at risk.

SEABROOK: So Timothy Martin, tell us what the signs of salmonella are.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. It's a very severe case of the flu, in many ways. The common side effects are abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever and/or headache up to 72 hours after eating a contaminated egg. So certainly -I, luckily, have never gotten salmonella. But for people I've spoken with who have, they just said, you know, it's like - almost like food poising, or it's just intense pain and intense illness.

SEABROOK: Okay. And how is it treated?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, basically, with salmonella, you - it's sort of like food poisoning. You just have to wait it out. Yeah. And for healthy people, the symptoms last a day or two. But you know, for maybe young children or senior citizens, it can be serious. So they probably should go to the doctor to get it monitored.

SEABROOK: Has the FDA tracked or found, discovered any deaths from salmonella among those cases that have been tracked?

Mr. MARTIN: For this most recent case of salmonella outbreak, there have not been any confirmed deaths yet. There have been around 2,000 reported cases of salmonella. But what's interesting, the CDC just said this on a conference call, that they estimate that about - you know, even if you have salmonella, only about one in 30 people report it. So you know, it could be far more than the 2,000 that's officially confirmed.

SEABROOK: Okay. We have some listeners on the line with questions. Let's first go to Albert(ph) in Tuckahoe, New Jersey. Hi. Go ahead.

ALBERT (Caller): Yes. I'm sort of different in liking my food fully cooked, whether it would be hamburger or eggs. But the main point is, I don't think you can get salmonella inside an egg because, you know, in the pharmaceutical industry, they use - breed vaccines, and if they were actually infected inside, it'd be full of salmonella. And I'm thinking this is possibly a surface thing, on the eggshell. And if they were washed or dumped in some vinegar for a second, you know, it may clean it up.

SEABROOK: The answer, Timothy Martin?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Actually, that's not completely true. This time around, the salmonella outbreak is triggered by the bacteria being inside the egg. And I don't want to give a long explanation, but hens can become infected from either rodents or workers who aren't taking who haven't taken all the sanitary measures. So like I said, to prevent salmonella, you'll need to cook the eggs thoroughly. And as I said, there's a variety of ways, whether it's eating them at restaurants or, you know, eating your egg sunny side up. Yeah, definitely, you can get salmonella from inside the egg. You can also get it on the exterior, and that's avoided by, you know, washing your hands and washing the eggs before.

SEABROOK: Timothy Martin, there's - there are going to be questions, especially since this goes back to two large egg producers. There are going to be questions with factory farming, and whether grouping animals this closely together causes these kinds of outbreaks. Has the FDA said anything about that?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. It's been brought up whether or not caged or uncaged chickens have, you know, more likelihood of contracting salmonella. You know, the research is still out. The FDA, what theyve said is - and what we're sort of reporting out today - is the FDA and the USDA, the two entities combined, none of them really, prior to July 9th when a wave of new egg rules went into implementation, no one really had oversight as to the eggs that we get for scrambled eggs or fried eggs. No one really had inspection responsibilities, checking for salmonella, up until that July 9th date. It seems to be quite a gap in the inspection service.

SEABROOK: What are the new egg rules, then?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Basic things, nothing - you know, the companies, obviously, are pushing back. But things like making sure that the young chicks or hens that are purchased - you know, that those companies check for salmonella, that the farm itself or the manufacturing facility itself is checked for salmonella, that the feed is also free of salmonella - that there are sort of sanitary guidelines and that, there are, you know, precautions or checks every two weeks.

Up until now, those have not been implemented. One source told me that he compared the regulations to, you know, sort of the speed limit on a highway - that up until now, you know, the only way you were caught or if it was identified were if people got sick or if you are caught. And now, starting July 9th, the FDA has far broader inspection capabilities.

SEABROOK: A couple of emails here along similar lines. Loretta(ph) in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, says: Am I worried about eating eggs? No. I buy my eggs at our local farmers market, and I feel vaccinated from the salmonella outbreak. Another reason to buy local.

Another one here from Cynthia(ph). She - in St. Paul, Minnesota. She says, we keep a dozen chickens at home, so this situation doesn't affect us. Local production is back.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I think - like I said, we have not finished our reporting yet on, you know, the role of factory farm and the links - potential links to salmonella. But yeah, I mean, if - you know, especially if you're buying local and if you trust the farmers and their methods and, you know, them keeping everything up to date and that the standard was sanitary and other type of just sort of safety measures, then you should be okay. And again, with salmonella, the only way to contract it is if you don't cook the eggs. So, you know, most people like their eggs scrambled in some form, or in omelets. And it isn't necessarily an issue for everyone.

SEABROOK: And you mentioned meringue and cake frosting, and other places where there are eggs.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

SEABROOK: Ice cream comes to mind as well.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, let's clarify. A lot of the egg thats broken down - say, for instance, in cake mix - it's pasteurized. So a lot of the processed egg - if the egg is pasteurized, that also eliminates the threat from salmonella from the egg yolk. Now, there might be something in - you know, if a product is not refrigerated properly, or if it's not handled properly, that might, you know, make it a risk for salmonella. But in terms of, you know, in this case, you know, inside the yolk, it's mostly taken care of if it's pasteurized.

SEABROOK: Let's go to Ev(ph) in Denver, Colorado. Ev, I understand you had salmonella poisoning?

EV (Caller): I did, yes.

SEABROOK: What happened?

EV: And it's - oh, it's so extreme. It starts off for me, it started off - I had oysters. I had raw - one raw oyster. And it starts off by, you're feeling kind of queasy and sick, and then you start throwing up.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

EV: And then, you throw up for a while and then...

SEABROOK: Okay. That's - we don't need all the gruesome details. Just - you went to the E.R., and what happened?

EV: Okay. I did. Well, they - you know, they got to check this bug and, of course, I got - and they said it was salmonella. And then they - the pub, they wanted to know where I got it and how I got it, that they had to report it to public health.

SEABROOK: Hmm. That's interesting.

EV: So...

SEABROOK: So they're tracking it?

EV: Yeah, they tracked it. They actually tracked it. And I bought some oysters from a local grocery store and - from Narragansett Bay. And you know, I love raw oysters. And I just kind of rinsed it under the water, put some lemon on it, and popped it in my mouth. And you know, a couple of hours later and - a good week later, I was very sick - very, very sick.

SEABROOK: Ev, I'm so sorry. I love oysters, too, and I don't like...

EV: Exactly.

SEABROOK: ...that story. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go to John(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, there. My question deals primarily just with general care of eggs and preparation. I work at a rather large company in town, and they have a cafeteria. And when they prepare us eggs on their grill, the chefs wear gloves. But I notice when they crack the egg, even though they have a gloved hand on, they'll get albumin - you know, the white - on their gloved hand. They don't take that glove off. And then they'll reach for a plate that they're going to put the scrambled eggs on. And their thumb goes on the inside of that plate. And then they put the eggs on the plate. Isn't that poor handling of eggs?

SEABROOK: Timothy Martin, what do you think?

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. If one of those raw eggs are - the cracked, you know, before they were scrambled, in fact had salmonella, that would basically, you know, be smearing it, smearing the cooked version with the bacteria. That's - that should be avoided.

JOHN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much. Let's go to Leslie(ph), who has a pertinent question. Leslie in Kansas City, Missouri, hi.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for the topic. I think this is quite a big story. You had mentioned Julian dates earlier. That was mentioned in USA Today. Can you explain that?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, Julian dates, they're - if you sort of look - I've looked at my eggs at home. They're generally on the ends of the package. And they'll have numbers. It basically gives two pieces of information: when the egg was manufactured, and also the plant number. So in this case, the plant number for the two big Iowa farms involved are like, 1026, 1413, 1946. That's sort of their identification code. Then a second date also, you know, provides when it was manufactured. So that could range, in this case, from 136 to 225.

LESLIE: Okay.

Mr. MARTIN: And yeah, so the itll come out like this: The Julian date will be P dash, and then it will be the plant number, which is four digits, followed by when it was manufactured, which is three digits. So an example here could be P-1720, and then 223.

LESLIE: Okay. Yeah, because they say that the numbering system at the end is January 1st is one, and December 31st is number 365.

Mr. MARTIN: That could very - yeah.

LESLIE: Yeah. So - and the only thing - I don't want to take too much time - is that it also said it affects producers with more than - what, 50,000 hens? And can we even believe that a plant like that could keep them in clean conditions? I mean, I've heard that - somewhat common knowledge that the hens can't even turn around in their cages.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

LESLIE: And, you know, I just think that - they say it could be contaminated from feces, the eggs. And I just hope this brings greater awareness of man against nature and what we're trying to twist here, you know?

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Leslie. What do you - Tim Martin?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, like I said, we're still finishing the reporting on -sort of the factory farms' role in all of this. But with these new egg rules in place, the FDA, if we're to take their word - at them, that, you know, they're going to be inspecting far, far more frequently than they are now. And you know, we there are quote-unquote factory farms and other, sort of livestock industries, you know, whether it's our beef or our poultry, even, where investigators are there every day. I don't imagine the FDA will be inside of large egg farms that frequently, but they should be keeping a much, much closer eye than they are now.

SEABROOK: Is it okay if the - this listener, Laura(ph), wants to know, is it okay if she hard-boils eggs?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. That should be okay, yes.

SEABROOK: Okay. And it's not just eggs. And, in fact, there's always a risk from eggs. You're just saying it's - there is an outbreak going on. And it's not just eggs. There are food safety questions about a lot of other things that we eat. I remember when I was pregnant, being told by a doctor to heat all of my lunch meat up to a certain temperature before eating it.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, there's been, you know, several high-profile food recalls over the past, you know, several years, whether it's peanuts or spinach. You know, it all boils down to, you know, proper handling of food. And in some cases, you know, the food-borne bacteria or illness cannot be avoided, that you should just sort of discard things immediately. I mean, in this case, you know, for your listeners out there, I would say, for, you know, just a good rule of thumb is if the egg yolk is still runny, theres some potential there that- that you could contract salmonella if it, indeed, were one of the, you know, cartons from one of the two big Iowa farms.

SEABROOK: Ten seconds for our last question: Where do all the tainted eggs go?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. They are going two places. Either they're broken up and pasteurized - like I said, pasteurized sort of, you know, nukes out the salmonella.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MARTIN: And second, in some cases, they're just tossed away.

SEABROOK: Timothy Martin is a food retail reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He joined us from his office in Chicago. Thanks so much.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.