Eggs Safer from Salmonella?

Last Editorial Review: 9/21/2004

Background: Some of us may remember the "good old days" when it was safe to use raw eggs in mayonnaise, eggnog, meringues and other dishes. Then, as chicken raising and egg production in the U.S. began to be done on an ever larger scale, contamination with salmonella bacteria became a major concern. We were warned that eating a Salmonella-contaminated egg that had not been adequately cooked could cause, at the least, a severe gastrointestinal illness and perhaps even death. This was not a trivial warning. It is estimated that there are 118,000 illnesses per year caused by the consumption of salmonella-contaminated eggs. It is a major health problem in the US.

Action: Most salmonella contamination of eggs occurs because the laying hen's reproductive tract has become contaminated with salmonella. The FDA has therefore proposed regulations to improve the sanitation on poultry farms as well as the storage of eggs in the hope of making the US egg supply safer. These regulations will be restricted to the approximately 4,000 egg producers with flocks of 3,000 or more laying hens.

Comment: The proposed FDA regulations seem quite reasonable but one can only wonder why it has taken so long to just draft these regulations for consideration. It is our impression that the European Union (EU) has taken much stronger measures to protect their poultry and egg industry which was already safer in the first place. In European stores, eggs are rarely kept under refrigeration. And all the eggs sent to EU markets must be stamped with the date that each egg was laid. This allows the consumer to immediately determine the freshness of the egg. In the US, the egg cartons are marked instead only with an "outdate" making it impossible to know the freshness of the egg and what might have happened to it in transit.

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

Related Links

  • Salmonella Enteritidis Infection (Egg Associated) (article)
  • Salmonellosis, Frequently Asked Questions (article)
  • Food Poisoning (article)

FDA Proposes Further Action to Improve Farm-to-Table Shell Egg Safety

The Food and Drug Administration proposed a regulation today to further improve the safety of shell eggs on the farm. When implemented, the production changes defined by the regulation will significantly reduce the number of illness caused by eggs contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE).

An estimated 118,000 illnesses per year are caused by consumption of SE-contaminated eggs. If an individual eats an SE-contaminated egg that is not fully cooked the individual may suffer mild to severe gastrointestinal illness, short term or chronic arthritis, or death.

"The implementation of the provisions of this rule would reduce the number of SE-related illnesses by 33,500 and is a major step in realizing our public health goal of a 50% reduction in all salmonellosis and a 50% reduction in SE outbreaks by 2010," said Acting Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford. "Today's action builds upon the safe consumer handling labeling and egg refrigeration and retail rule of 2000."

The proposed regulation would require implementation of SE prevention measures for all egg producers with 3,000 or more laying hens that produce shell eggs for retail sale and do not process their eggs with a treatment, such as pasteurization, to ensure their safety. The proposed rule's SE prevention measures include:

Provisions for procurement of chicks and pullets A biosecurity program A pest and rodent control program Cleaning and disinfection of poultry houses that have had an environmental sample or egg test positive for SE Refrigerated storage of eggs at the farm Producer testing of the environment for SE in poultry houses-if the environmental test is positive, FDA proposes that egg testing for SE be undertaken, and that, if the test is positive, the eggs be diverted from the table egg market Identification of a person responsible for SE prevention at each farm Through these proposed measures, FDA believes SE prevalence will be reduced in the poultry house environment and consequently in the eggs themselves. Most SE contamination of eggs is a result of SE infection in the laying hen's reproductive tract, known as transovarian contamination). The proposed prevention measures are designed to reduce the likelihood of transovarian contamination.

To fully implement this proposed rule will cost an estimated $82 million annually for the more than 4,100 farms that have 3,000 or more hens. The actual cost will vary with the number of poultry houses and layers under production and will range from a low of 19 cents per layer to $1.00 per layer per year.

While today's proposal focuses primarily on the farm, FDA is aware of illnesses and outbreaks associated with serving undercooked eggs at retail establishments. Therefore, FDA is soliciting comment on whether to propose potential retail establishment requirements to address their concern.

The proposed rule is part of a joint and coordinated strategy by FDA and the Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA) to more effectively deal with egg safety for both shell eggs and egg products. FDA and FSIS will continue to work closely together to ensure that our egg safety measures are consistent, coordinated and complementary.

Source: FDA news release, P04-90, September 20, 2004


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