Consumers should consider eggs and egg products as potentially hazardous foods
Eggs are a potentially hazardous food, but there is no reason consumers can’t enjoy them safely this Easter holiday season. Like other perishable food items, all it takes is a little common sense when it comes to handling, preparing, and storing eggs.
“Eggs are an animal product, just like any other meat product, and are exposed to food pathogens,” says Sarah Schwab, food safety
specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “That’s why it is important to keep them properly refrigerated and to cook them thoroughly.”
Just like meat, an increase in pathogens can be slowed or controlled through refrigeration. Pathogens can be eliminated with thorough cooking.
“Easter brings eggs to the forefront,” says Schwab. “But throughout the year, all of us should be conscientious about how we handle eggs.”
Cooking potentially hazardous foods is the key. Heat will destroy the organism that would make someone sick. Still, there are many recipes that call for raw eggs as an ingredient. Consumers should be aware those foods can also cause illness.
“Consuming raw eggs is cause for concern, especially for those people who are most susceptible– the old, the very young, pregnant women, and immune-compromised individuals,” says Schwab.
For those who insist on eating raw cookie dough and Caesar salad, there are pasteurized egg products that can be purchased at the grocery store. Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and eggnog are other products with recipes that may call for uncooked eggs. The safe thing to do is use the pasteurized product.
While salmonella is the main culprit of egg safety, the high amount of protein and moisture associated with eggs leaves them vulnerable to other food pathogens. Cross contaminating an egg mixture can be hazardous simply because the egg can support rapid growth of other bacteria.
Mechanization of the egg industry has actually made the egg safer prior to purchase. Most laying hens are housed exclusively indoors in facilities with computer controlled feeding, heating, and ventilation systems. Eggs are collected via conveyor. All other production procedures are done by an automated system. From the hen house to the processing line where the egg is washed, inspected, and packaged, those eggs routinely avoid contact with the human hand. In some cases, the consumer may be the first person to actually touch the egg.
“We inspect both the commercial egg operations and the grocery stores that carry eggs to ensure proper handling and transportation with respect to temperatures,” says Schwab.
For consumers, a time of concern is after the eggs are purchased at the store.
“Eggs need to be refrigerated as soon as possible,” says Schwab. “Get them home quickly along with other perishable foods.”
Eggs should be kept in refrigeration that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. It’s best to consume eggs within five weeks if they remain raw, although any problems are most likely to be with the quality of the egg, not food safety-related. Leaving the eggs in the carton may allow them to last longer.
When it comes to eggs, proper preparation is essential.
Eggs should be cooked slowly over a gentle heat. Hard-boiled eggs need to be cooked until they are no longer runny, but firm. Cooked egg products should reach a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the egg is cooked, it’s best to consume it within a week. After boiling, the eggs need to get back into the refrigerator within two hours. Letting them sit on the stovetop is not advised.
Using eggs as ingredients also requires vigilance. If you are baking a meringue for Easter Sunday dinner, you need to cook it at 350 degrees for at least 15 minutes. Be careful with things like French toast, which needs to be thoroughly cooked as well. Food safety officials say it is probably better to overcook than undercook.
Hard cooked eggs are most likely to be in the spotlight this time of year. If the brightly colored Easter egg ends up as part of a child’s backyard hunt, it is best to avoid eating it. Once those eggs have been outside or handled and hidden, they could become damaged. The shell of a cooked egg is relatively porous and more susceptible to contamination. Also remember, they will be out of refrigeration. The best thing to do is discard them. If they have been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, there should be no doubt– throw it out.
“The safest option for Easter egg hunts is to use plastic eggs,” says Schwab.
Oregon is a significant producer of eggs, which is ranked 12th in production value among all Oregon agricultural commodities. The $65 million industry ensures a fresh product as more than 694 million eggs were produced in Oregon in 2012– the most recent year in which statistics are available. The state’s 2.2 million egg-laying hens are concentrated in a handful of major commercial producers.
The increasing popularity of backyard chickens doesn’t change the advice when it comes to handling and preparing eggs. Refrigeration and thorough cooking are still critically important.
The local eggs on sale this week are likely to be about as fresh as they can be. Eggs will almost always arrive at the grocery store less than a week from the day they were produced. During heavy consumption periods such as Easter, those eggs are more likely to arrive within a day or two.
Despite the freshness, consumers need to handle eggs as a potentially hazardous food.
Eggs can be part of a healthy diet during Easter as well as the rest of the year. Only when they are mishandled are they likely to become a problem.
“There is no reason not to enjoy eggs this time of year, but we’ve got to be smart about it,” says Schwab.
For more information, contact Sarah Schwab at (503) 508-6028.PDF versionAudio version