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Egg fans uneasy about FDA's 'No over easy' advice
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- So you order your eggs sunny-side up? Like to sop up the runny yolk with a nice thick piece of toast?
Stop right there. The U.S. government says your breakfast is all wrong.
"You just need to cook your eggs thoroughly -- no sunny side up, no over easy," said Dr. Jane Henney, FDA Commissioner. "This is a case when it's better to be safe than sorry."
Because high temperatures kill salmonella bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration has recently ordered instructions on cartons of eggs telling consumers to cook them "until yolks are firm." But federal health authorities admit this is going to be a hard sell.
"These recipes are traditional -- people wake up to them in the morning. Changing those behaviors is a long and challenging prospect," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the foodborne and diarrheal disease branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But change them they must, Tauxe said, because one in every 100 U.S. consumers could be exposed to an egg contaminated with salmonella. The CDC estimates that in 1997, tainted eggs caused 90 deaths and 200,000 illnesses.
Waiter! Take back these eggs!
Are consumers going to change their egg habits just because the FDA says they should?
"No," said Peggy Chambers, owner of a Huddle House restaurant in Marietta, Georgia. "This is a free country and we live in it and we should be able to choose."
One of her customers, Josh Tilly, agreed. "They (the FDA) doesn't have to eat them. I do," he said. "I'll just take the chance that I'll get that salmonella poisoning."
This egg controversy is nothing new to New Jersey, where in 1992 the Health Department made it illegal to serve undercooked or raw eggs. Violators could be fined $25 to $100. Hysteria resulted. Consumers bemoaned the governmental intrusion into their breakfast tables. Politicians pointed fingers. The law was quickly changed.
The new FDA labels don't carry any penalties -- no one's going to arrest you or your waiter as you slurp down your soft-boiled egg.
"I think what's important here is that consumers have the information that there is occasionally a problem with salmonella in an egg and those consumers who wish to make their eggs safe know how to do it," said Tauxe. He added that the FDA recently announced that supermarkets, restaurants, schools and other institutions will soon be required to refrigerate eggs.
How risky are soft-boiled eggs?
The CDC estimates that one out of every 20,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella. The egg industry, figuring that the typical consumer eats 250 eggs a year, predicts they'd run into one contaminated egg every 80 years. "So your risk is very small because that one egg you eat has to be undercooked," said Donald McNamara, executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center, an egg industry group.
But if you do the math, the risk is much bigger than it first appears, argues Tauxe.
Pretend, for example, that a city has 40 restaurants. Say each of those restaurants uses 500 eggs a day -- that's 20,000 eggs -- and statistics indicate that one of those eggs will be contaminated. If that's the case, one person in that city every day could get sick from salmonella. And if that undercooked egg is mixed with other eggs to make multiple portions, many people could get sick.
While the CDC reports that last year no one died from salmonella poisoning, the bacteria can trigger a nasty illness. Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, headache, nausea and vomiting. Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems can develop severe or even life-threatening illnesses.
Reducing the risk
The latest advance in egg safety -- greeted enthusiastically by the CDC and the FDA but lukewarmly by the egg industry -- is eggs that are pasteurized in the shell. Using a process approved by the FDA, the eggs are brought up to a temperature high enough to kill salmonella but low enough so the egg doesn't cook.
"The CDC for a long time has said that a pasteurized egg is a logical alternative," said Tauxe. "I buy them, and they taste the same (as regular eggs) to my mouth."
But the egg industry says the machines are expensive -- and it's not clear whether they're worth it. "Egg manufacturers are driven solely by consumers. If the demand for (pasteurized eggs) is there, then they'll be out there," McNamara said.
The Davidson's brand of pasteurized eggs currently is available only on the East Coast from New York to Atlanta, Georgia. Crystal Farms pasteurized eggs are being test marketed in Minnesota. A carton costs about 30 cents more than regular eggs.
McNamara added that the egg industry is now studying whether chickens could be vaccinated against salmonella so that their eggs would be bacteria-free.
Meantime, for lovers of runny yolks, there are several choices -- switch egg styles and get used to it, buy pasteurized eggs to reduce the risk or keep eating runny yolks and take the chance that the next egg may be contaminated with salmonella.
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