A lot of sick people nationwide are wishing that Humpty Dumpty hadn’t landed in their sunny-side ups when he fell. Public health departments report that in the last few days, over 1000 people have been sickened by salmonella after eating tainted eggs. Over half a billion eggs have been recalled in response, with Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, recalling 380 million of those eggs, and a second Iowa-based farm recalling the rest of them. If you don’t live in Iowa but you’ve been enjoying omelets, you aren’t necessarily safe, because the eggs were distributed throughout the Midwest and California. And since salmonella has a two to three-week incubation period, the number of new cases will most likely increase substantially as the days pass.
According to experts, delays in implementing new egg safety rules are to blame. I gave you a heads up on the new rules, which theoretically would have prevented this outbreak, a year ago, July. As I wrote then, the regulations gave large farms one year to comply with the new rules; small farms had three years. But in the same way that your car always seems to break down the day the warranty expires, the new egg regulations were only in the “phase-in” stage, and weren’t fully implemented yet just as the outbreak occurred. Said Sherri McGarry of the Food and Drug Administration, “The outbreak could have been prevented. The egg safety rule is in a phase-in approach, but there are measures that would have been in place that could have prevented this if it [had] been placed earlier than in July.” Shoulda, woulda, coulda…. The bottom line is that regulations, such as they are, do no good if they aren’t implemented.
And the thing is, salmonella is a miserable disease. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, chills, muscle pain, and vomiting that can last between four and seven days. The infection can spread beyond the intestines and cause life-threatening illness, paralysis, and a wide range of serious conditions. Children, the elderly, and those with immune deficiencies particularly are at risk of these more serious iterations of the disease.
As I’ve written before, salmonella bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of mammals, in their feces, and in the soil. Chickens mostly get exposed to the bacteria through feed containing animal parts and rat feces. And when large numbers of chickens live in close quarters like in factory farms, they can spread it among themselves through their feces.
The bacteria are transmitted to the egg in two ways. First, chickens deliver their eggs through the same passageway through which they deliver their poop (something to think about before letting your kids decorate Easter eggs without washing the shells), so it’s a simple matter for bacteria to be passed onto the eggshell. Also, chickens can harbor the bacteria in their ovaries, which means the bacteria can enter the yolk before the shell is formed. To make matters worse, a chicken infected with salmonella looks perfectly normal. The only way to confirm the presence of the bacteria is to test the chickens or eggs (or wait for people to get sick). Apparently, up to this point, major producers have been reluctant to conduct widespread testing, waiting for disaster to strike rather than taking preventative measures.
In any case, you can get salmonella by even brief contact with tainted shells or by eating eggs with runny yolks or consuming raw eggs in dishes like mousse or “real” Caesar salad dressing. You can also get it simply by contact with contaminated utensils and surfaces, so washing your hands and anything that came into contact with the egg is a must.
Large, factory egg producers (those that raise more than 50,000 hens) are required by the federal government to have the new rule in place by now. These companies account for about 80 percent of the egg market. The new rule requires them to:
- Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria.
- Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment.
- Conduct testing in the poultry house for Salmonella enteritidis. If the tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process the eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use.
- Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for Salmonella enteritidis.
- Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees F during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization).
Smaller producers (between 3,000 and 50,000 hens) will have until 2012 to implement the rule. As I’ve said before, we can be thankful that the government has focused on cleaning up egg producers’ facilities and procedures instead of recommending antibiotic-based prophylactic methods for every egg sold.
But you have to wonder about the industrial production of eggs in the first place. As recently described by Kurt Friese in the Huffington Post, “Across the US there are about 280 million hens in battery cages at any given time, cages that so severely restrict their movements that they cannot even spread their wings. They can’t nest, bathe in the dust, perch or forage, all instinctive chicken behaviors. Completely depleted of calcium in a few short weeks, their bones break and they are shipped off, dead and dying, to soup plants (how’s that chicken noodle soup tasting right about now) and pet food factories.” Then there is the matter of the immense amount of fecal and biological waste from these operations that seems to inevitably leak into the environment, threatening the health and wellbeing of people in adjacent communities.
According to Friese, the “industrial” methods for raising “cage free” hens are hair-raisingly cruel as well. Among other things, the chickens’ beaks are clipped and the birds are exposed to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gasses. Even organic methodsof egg production are not exempt from cruelty. For example, male chicks are regularly “discarded” because, as non-egg layers, they are of no use to the industry.
So what’s an egg lover to do? Try to get your eggs from a small, local producer and be sure to ask how they raise their hens. Can you say farmers market? And if you’re buying a commercial brand of organic or cage free in your local health food store, be sure and ask there, too. In the meantime, no matter how your eggs are produced, be smart about egg safety. Don’t use raw or undercooked eggs in food and wash everything that comes into contact with them well. Keep eggs refrigerated and don’t let cooked eggs stand around at room temperature for more than two hours. You can find a complete list of egg safety tips here. And as holiday season approaches, make sure to add plenty of rum to your eggnog — so you won’t think too much about what else might be in there.