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Is Eating Eggs Safe? What You Must Know About Foodborne Illness

 
Eating eggs is something millions of us do every day, but when there’s a salmonella poisoning scare, it can look like a risky habit. Foodborne illness has been linked to everything from spinach and bagged lettuce to peanut butter: Every few weeks, it seems, we hear about another previously thought-to-be-safe staple being recalled and yanked from grocery-store shelves. This year about 76 million Americans will get sick from something they ate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The culprit: disease-causing microbes like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, which can creep into our food supply during the growing, packaging, and handling stages. Undetected, these bacteria make their way into our kitchens and onto our dinner plates.  

So should you be worried? Yes, and no, says Ted Labuza, Ph.D., a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Foodborne illnesses can be a serious health risk: More than 300,000 people check into a hospital due to one annually, and 5,000 die. "But the overall danger is on the decline, thanks to better technology and stricter governmental regulations," says Labuza.  

Plus, you have a lot more control over getting sick than you might think. "Taking a few precautions when preparing your food can drastically reduce your odds of poisoning," says Labuza. Read on to find out the risks behind five common threats, and how you can safeguard your health.

The Scare: Bacteria filled eggs
The Real Deal: The major source of Salmonella poisoning is raw or undercooked eggs. The cause can be traced to certain animal farmers. "Poultry waste, which carries Salmonella, is often reused as chicken feed," says Labuza. (The practice isn't allowed in certified organic farming, so those eggs are often a safer bet.) If you've been exposed, you'll show symptoms—a fever, cramps, and diarrhea—anywhere from 12 hours to three days after you ate Salmonella-tinged food. The infection usually goes away on its own in about a week, but see a doctor if symptoms persist or if you find blood in your stool. Compared with other bacteria, Salmonella is one of the most dangerous; about 600 people die from it yearly. The microbe can travel to the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection, especially in pregnant women, young children, and the elderly.

Protect Yourself
Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs
"For homemade ice cream and Hollandaise sauces, buy pasteurized eggs or liquid substitutes like Egg Beaters," recommends Arun Bhunia, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at Purdue University. The pasteurization process ensures that the eggs have been rapidly heated to kill all bacteria. When making egg dishes, opt for poached, hard-boiled, scrambled dry, or over hard instead of sunny-side up.

Keep surfaces clean
Place a paper towel under the lip of the pan or bowl when you break eggs to catch dribbles, wipe down countertops with disinfectant afterward, and wash your hands after handling eggs.

Consider probiotics
Animal studies suggest that these "good" bacteria may protect the digestive tract against invasions of Salmonella. Find probiotics in supplements, such as Florastor and Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus DF, or in yogurt with live cultures.

The Scare: Killer salad
The Real Deal: While E. coli (short for Escherichia coli) is typically associated with eating undercooked ground beef, people have also gotten sick from consuming contaminated bean sprouts or leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach. In 2006, an E. coli outbreak traced to bagged baby spinach struck more than 200 people and killed three. "Fruits and vegetables may be exposed to tainted water or soil," explains Robert Gravani, Ph.D., a professor of food science at Cornell University. The bacteria, which live in the digestive systems of cattle and pigs, are passed into their manure. When that waste is used as fertilizer, the bacteria can travel through the ground or water supply.

Although most types of E. coli are harmless, one virulent strain can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, or in severe cases, kidney damage.

If you've been exposed (symptoms start around two to eight days afterward), drink plenty of water and wait for it to pass through your system in about a week. Although it sounds counterintuitive, avoid anti-diarrheal medications: They slow down your intestinal function, giving the bacteria more time to attack your body. See your doctor if you're sick for longer than a week or if you have bloody diarrhea or a fever, which may signal a kidney complication.  
 
Protect Yourself
Remove the outer layer of a head of lettuce
This is the most likely part to harbor E. coli. "Then wash your hands with soap and warm water before touching the rest," says Michael P. Doyle, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Georgia.

Rinse all produce
Run everything under water, including bagged vegetables, lettuce and other greens. Even those labeled "ready to eat" or "prewashed" may be contaminated.

Cook sprouts
The moist environment that they're grown in is a breeding ground for bacteria.

The Scare: Contaminated poultry
The Real Deal: Though it's not as well known as other types of bacteria, Campylobacter causes a million-plus cases of foodborne illness annually. It's also the number-one cause of diarrhea. Found in the intestines of poultry, these spiral-shaped organisms are transferred to the meat during the slaughtering process. The infections are rampant because the bacteriais so potent: The amount in a single drop of chicken juice can make you sick. Symptoms are similar to those of Salmonella—diarrhea, stomach pain, and fever within two to five days of exposure—but they tend to be less severe. However, about one in 1,000 cases triggers an immune disorder called Guillain-BarrÉ syndrome, which can cause muscle weakness, blurred vision, tingly limbs, and over time, permanent paralysis.

Protect Yourself
Defrost the right way
Never thaw poultry (or other meat) on the counter. Your best bet is to transfer it from freezer to fridge. Boneless breasts should be ready overnight; bone-in pieces may take a day or two. If you need it faster, defrost in the microwave, but the USDA recommends you cook it immediately afterward because some of the chicken may cook partially during microwaving.

Make sure your poultry is cooked through
Just because your meat isn't pink doesn't mean it's safe to eat. Stick a meat thermometer into the thickest part, usually the breast, to ensure it's reached at least 165 F.

Don't eat organ meat?
"Gizzards, hearts, and the like could have especially high concentrations of Campylobacter," says Bhunia.

The Scare: Deadly deli meats
The Real Deal: Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria found in soil, water, and the intestines of food-producing animals, lurks almost everywhere, including hard-to-clean places in processing plants like drains. The bacteria can contaminate cooked deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses, and precooked packaged seafood. Because Listeria thrives in cold temperatures, it can survive in the grocery store's cooler and your fridge, making all packaged meats and seafood risky. For guaranteed-safe cold cuts, look for the words "bacteriophage preparation" on the package. This means that the meat's been treated with a spray, called LMP 102, recently approved to kill lingering bacteria.  

The upside is that most people aren't affected by Listeria; at most it can cause mild flu-like symptoms. The majority of the 2,500 cases a year (including about 500 deaths from it) occur in people with compromised immune systems or in the elderly, young children, and pregnant women. Expectant mothers, for example, are 20 times more likely to contract the bacteria, which can pass into the placenta and raise the risk for premature delivery or miscarriage.

Protect Yourself
Cook or boil hot dogs before eating
"Microwave for one minute on high, making sure the food rotates so the heat goes all the way through," suggests Bhunia.

Avoid eating refrigerated seafood like smoked whitefish or lox
To kill off any bacteria, you must cook it first. 
 
Steer clear of raw milk cheeses like Brie in Europe
(They're also known to harbor Listeria.) Here in the States the FDA requires that raw milk cheese be aged for 60 days. Soft cheeses, like Mexican- style queso fresco or fresh mozzarella—even those made from pasteurized milk—can be recontaminated, so it's best to skip the softer variety if you're pregnant or have a chronic illness.

The Scare: Dining-out dangers
The Real Deal: Whether it was the blue-plate special or prix fixe that put you out of commission, the bug most often to blame is Norovirus. This virus infects 23 million people a year, making it the number-one cause of food poisoning. Better known as the stomach flu or gastroenteritis, Norovirus is spread through fecal matter; in restaurants it's usually passed from workers who don't wash their hands properly after using the toilet. Approximately 12 to 60 hours after eating a contaminated meal, you'll come down with nausea, a fever, chills, and diarrhea. Most people feel better after a day and don't suffer any long-term effects.

Protect Yourself
Read health-inspection reports
Before eating in a new place, check with your local Department of Health to see whether there have been any recent health-code violations (search online or call them directly).

Give the establishment a once-over
Do tables and utensils look clean? Are floors, walls, and ceilings in good shape? If not, you've identified the most common restaurant inspection violations, according to a study from the CDC. If a place looks dirty, you can bet that hygiene isn't a top priority.

Hit the restroom
"It's the best indicator of an establishment's general cleanliness," says Bhunia. "If the bathroom isn't clean, places the public doesn't see are likely to be worse." 
 
Is organic food safer?
Not necessarily. In organic farming animal manure is used as a fertilizer. Tainted manure can seep into the soil and water supply, contaminating fruits and vegetables, says food scientist Robert Gravani, Ph.D.: "Organic produce can be as much a threat as conventionally grown crops, so use the same precautions."