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Runny egg health hazard

What about eggs? “Be careful with eggs,” the World Health Organization warns.432 “Eggs from infected poultry could also be contaminated with the [H5N1] virus and therefore care should be taken in handling shell eggs or raw egg products.”433 This includes first washing eggs with soapy water and then afterwards washing our hands and all surfaces and utensils thoroughly with soap and water.434 Given that pigs fed eggs from an infected flock fell ill, researchers maintain that the “survival time of the viruses…on surfaces such as eggs is sufficient to allow wide dissemination.”435 According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the biggest risk from eggs is that the shells may harbor traces of excrement containing the virus.436

The comic strip One Big Happy by Rick Detorie once explained the layers of infection. A father and daughter are in the grocery store. “That’s a cow’s tongue?!” the girl exclaims, face contorted in disgust. “EEEEww…I would never eat anything that was in a cow’s mouth!” “Me neither,” replies the father, not looking up from his shopping list. “Let’s see, where are the eggs?” The daughter stops, eyes wide in realization: “Wait a minute!” Eggs do, after all, come out of a chicken’s rear (vagina and rectum combine into the cloaca).

Like Salmonella, bird flu viruses can infect the chickens’ ovaries, so the virus can come prepackaged within the egg as well.437 During the 1983 Pennsylvania outbreak, the virus was found festering within both the egg white and the yolk, making proper cooking essential.438 To reduce the risk of contracting bird flu from eggs, the Mayo Clinic warns about mayo: “Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs or any products containing them, including mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce and homemade ice cream.”439 Other potential sources of raw or undercooked eggs include mousse, Caesar salad, homemade eggnog, lemon meringue pie, tiramisu, raw cookie dough, and eggs that are soft boiled, lightly poached, or cooked sunny side up or “over easy” with a runny yolk. The latest CDC440 and WHO441 recommendations are adamant on this point—whether it’s to avoid bird flu or Salmonella, egg yolks should not be runny or liquid. Researchers concluded in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “no duration of frying ‘sunnyside’ (not turned) eggs was sufficient to kill all the Salmonella.”442

But haven’t people been cooking eggs that way for a hundred years? Diseases like bird flu and Salmonella were practically unknown a few decades ago. Our grandparents could drink eggnog with wild abandon while their grandkids could eat raw cookie dough without fear of joining the more than a thousand Americans who die every year from Salmonella poisoning. There was a time when medium-rare hamburgers, raw milk, and steak tartare were less dangerous, a time when Rocky Balboa could more safely drink his raw-egg smoothies. Blaming customers for mishandling or improper cooking is only possible when all this is forgotten.

USDA microbiologist Nelson Cox says, “Raw meats are not idiot-proof. They can be mishandled and when they are, it’s like handling a hand grenade. If you pull the pin, somebody’s going to get hurt.” While some may question the wisdom of selling hand grenades in the supermarket, Cox disagrees: “I think the consumer has the most responsibility but refuses to accept it.”443 “There has been a subtle turning of this on to the consumer,” says Steve Bjerklie, former editor of Meat and Poultry magazine, “and it’s morally reprehensible.”444 Patricia Griffin, director of Epidemiological Research at the Centers for Disease Control responded famously to this kind of blame-the-victim attitude. “Is it reasonable,” she asked, ‘“that if a consumer undercooks a hamburger…their three-year-old dies?”445

Pre-processed foods, however, are undeniably industry’s responsibility. Eggs used in processed food products are pasteurized first to ensure safety. Because the use of eggs is so widespread in the processed food industry (about one-third of the eggs Americans consume are eaten in products),446 USDA researchers recently studied standard industry pasteurization protocols to make certain that no bird flu virus was left alive. Although they found that pasteurization did kill the virus in liquid eggs (used in products like Egg Beaters®), the standard method used to pasteurize dried egg products—which are ubiquitously found in the processed food and baking industries—was not effective in eliminating the deadliest bird flu viruses. The USDA researchers showed that while the industry standard “low temperature pasteurization protocol”—a week at 130F—killed the low-grade bird flu viruses naturally adapted to wintering in ice-cold Canadian lakes, the high-grade bird flu viruses like H5N1 adapted to land-based domestic poultry survived more than two weeks at that temperature. The length of time required to kill the virus, about 15 days, was considered inconsistent with “commercial application.”447
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