'Rocky' Might Want To Lay Off The Raw Eggs

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The outbreak of salmonella in eggs has raised a lot of concerns for consumers. Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, tells Linda Wertheimer when it comes to eating eggs, there's always a hazard of ingesting salmonella. Schaffner says it's not a good idea to eat semi-cooked or raw eggs.


We're recommending donuts for breakfast today, because right now we're going to talk about steps you can take if you're worried about the possibility of contaminated eggs.

William Schaffner is chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. He joins us on the line.

Good morning, doctor.

Dr. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER (Vanderbilt University): Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So could you explain to us how eggs come to be contaminated in the first place?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Sure. Salmonella are contained within the hen, within the intestinal tract, and as the egg comes out, the egg surface, the shell can be contaminated by fecal material from the hen. However, the hen can also be infected, and as it's creating the egg, introduce the salmonella into the interior of the egg.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we hear about eggs and salmonella quite a bit. There are a lot of warnings about cake batter or raw cookie dough with eggs. Are eggs especially dangerous or efficient at harboring salmonella?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Well, they're very common, and because we like to consume them semi-cooked frequently, and even occasionally raw, there's a hazard of our ingesting the salmonella and having the salmonella set up housekeeping in our own intestinal tract.

WERTHEIMER: So given the nature of the major producers of eggs that are in trouble at this moment with salmonella, would it help to buy organic eggs or cage-free eggs? Would that make a difference?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: I've never seen data to suggest that those chickens are less apt to be salmonella infected. They might be because basically they're farmed the way it used to be in the old days, where farms had smaller flocks. Here you have these gigantic egg-laying factories almost, and you can see that there are many opportunities for much wider contamination of the eggs.

WERTHEIMER: If you're concerned about contamination, can you kill the salmonella somehow? If you cook the eggs, would that make a difference?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Absolutely, absolutely. And the recommendation is to cook eggs thoroughly. No more soft-boiled, no more loosely scrambled, and no more easy-over.

WERTHEIMER: Is pasteurizing an option?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: It looks to be. There is a technology that the folks who do this claim will not alter the taste or the utility of eggs. And you can pasteurize them, which not only cleans the outside, but kills the bugs in the interior of the egg. That's not widely used yet, and there's some people who suggest, well, maybe the eggs don't taste exactly the same.

WERTHEIMER: You're not talking about the ones that come in the little milk cartons. You're talking about the egg in the shell, but pasteurized.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Is salmonella just a fact of life now, a reality of modern food production? There was a peanut outbreak in 2009, pistachios that same year. Is it just unavoidable?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Salmonella are avoidable to a large degree, but in our modern environment we create circumstances where salmonella contamination can be distributed nationwide. Our food stuff used to be acquired locally and so you would have small outbreaks of salmonella. Now what happens, if you have a contaminated product, it can be distributed over the entire country. And so the opportunity for very large outbreaks is much more now than it used to be.

WERTHEIMER: So how worried should we be? Is this as scary as it seems?

Dr. SCHAFFNER: It's - it's a bit scary, and I think we ought to be cautious. We ought to, when we use eggs, be careful, wash our hands before and after egg preparation and cook them very, very thoroughly.

WERTHEIMER: Eww. I hate hard-boiled eggs and hard fried eggs and all of that.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: I agree with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: OK. Dr. Schaffner, thank you very much.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: Linda, it's a pleasure. Bye-bye.

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