Unscrambling a Very “Scrambled Eggs” Message

In a recently published report titled “Scrambled Eggs. How aBroken Food Safety System Let Contaminated Eggs Become a National Food PoisoningEpidemic”, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) hasconcluded that the leading cause of food borne illnesses in the United States isthe egg. Using a combination of reported statements by “experts” and avariety of scientifically loose calculations, CSPI has made a number ofstatements which we believe are misleading at best, and simply wrong at worst.The following responses address some of the many debateable aspects of thereport.

CSPI says: “WhileSalmonella sometimes is present on the outside of egg shells, no one everthought the inside of eggs could be contaminated by bacteria. It was a surprisewhen government scientists first linked human illness from SE to internallycontaminated eggs in 1986. Since the early 1980s, the SE problem in shell eggs(fresh eggs purchased in cartons) has ballooned out of control. The Centers forDisease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported five times as many SE cases in1995 as in 1980.” Truth is: Given thefact that internal contamination first appeared in 1986, it does not seem toosurprising that the number of SE cases was higher in 1995 than in 1980 whenthere wasn’t a SE problem. If one looks at the data for 1986 compared to 1980 itis clear that there was a three-fold increase and between 1986 and 1995 lessthan a two-fold increase. Data selection can make a large difference ininterpretation of the findings and clearly CSPI has a greater interest in themore extreme examples.
CSPI says: “Hundredsor even thousands of people die from eating SE-tainted eggs each year.” Truth is: Accordingto the document “Update on Salmonella serotype Enteritidis (SE) Infections”issued on 4/16/97 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Todate, 10 SE outbreak-associated deaths have been reported for 1995 and 1996.”The data also indicate that in 1994 there were no reported SE-associated deaths.Seven of the deaths occurred in nursing homes. Hardly seems enough to bemisinterpreted as hundreds or even thousands of deaths from eating eggs!
CSPI says: “SEis responsible for the lion’s share of food poisoning illnesses, about a thirdof all food poisoning outbreaks where the cause is known.” Truth is: The graphthat CSPI uses to document this one-third “lion’s share” shows that67% of food poisoning outbreaks were non-SE. Also note that this is “wherethe cause is known” which is often less than fifty percent of alloutbreaks.
CSPI says: “AUSDA survey showed that the frequency of SE isolates in unpasteurized liquideggs nearly doubled in the northeastern and western U.S. between 1991 and 1995.” Truth is: Onecomponent of the Pennsylvania Pilot Project was to divert eggs from SEcontaminated flocks to egg processing plants for pasteurization. Clearly itwould be expected that the number of SE isolates at these facilities wouldincrease. And once pasteurized, these products pose no risk.
CSPI says: “Thefirst farms producing contaminated eggs were all located in the northeasternU.S. and with quick action, the problem might have stopped there. But thenumerous federal agencies with oversight responsibilities for eggs didn’t act. Instead they competed with each other, stumbled over each other, and ultimatelybacked down in the face of industry pressure.” Truth is: The eggindustry worked with Congress in getting funding for the Pennsylvania PilotProject and was instrumental in forming the joint project to determine what theSE problem was, the factors involved, and what preventive measures wereeffective in getting rid of SE.
CSPI says: “Congresspasses law requiring egg refrigeration; USDA never enforces it.” Truth is: The eggrefrigeration legislation was initiated and strongly supported by the eggindustry. Eggs sitting out at room temperature for a long time period is one ofour biggest concerns, and unfortunately a problem beyond our control.
CSPI says: “Over10,000 reported SE food poisonings for the year.” [1995] Truth is: Therewere 410 SE outbreaks reported between 1990 and 1996 of which only 131 wereshown to have been egg-related. Not all SE food poisonings are egg-related.
CSPI says: “Itis estimated that one out of every 10,000 eggs, or about 4.5 million eggs eachyear, are infected with SE.” Truth is: In 1995and ’96 there were roughly 55 SE outbreaks each year and some 50 to 60 billioneggs consumed. Another way to look at the data is that there was one outbreakper billion eggs consumed. Keep in mind that those 4.5 million eggs are only aproblem if they are temperature abused by leaving out at room temperature formore than 2 hours, and then undercooked.
CSPI says: “TheSE bacteria multiply inside eggs that are not properly refrigerated (to aninternal temperature of 45 degrees F.).” Truth is: Theindustry supports egg refrigeration laws. But why is it if 45 degrees F iseffective in stopping SE growth does CSPI want national egg refrigeration lawsat 41 degrees F? Most egg producers wanted the 45 degree law and haveestablished facilities to meet the requirement. After years of setting thesestandards are producers now expected to change again?
CSPI says: “Theelderly residents of nursing homes are especially at risk of death from SE: 85percent of reported deaths from SE between 1988 and 1992 were from this group.” Truth is: And undervirtually ever circumstance the problem was pooling eggs, temperature abuse andinsufficient cooking. The egg industry has an active education program forinstitutional food services and strongly recommends that hospitals and nursinghomes use pasteurized egg products.
CSPI says: “Eggsthat came from geographical areas with known high SE rates should have beensampled to determine if they contained SE.” Truth is: The ideaof sampling eggs is an interesting one since CSPI acknowledges that theincidence is only 1 per 10,000 eggs. How many eggs would one need to test to beassured that there were no false negatives? It certainly would take a lot ofscrambled eggs to find that 0.01% of contaminated eggs.
CSPI says: “In1992, 38 percent of laying houses (in PA) had at least one SE positive sample,but by 1995, only 13 percent of flocks had a positive SE sample.” Truth is: And afterthe federal Pennsylvania Pilot Project ended, and was under industry and statesupervision, the number of laying houses SE positive decreased to 7.5% in 1996.Doesn’t this suggest that the egg industry can maintain an effective program?
CSPI says: “BothFDA and USDA’s FSIS provide safe egg cooking advice to consumers. However, thisinformation is generally available only upon request from the agencies. Therecommendation given out on USDA’s safe food-handling hotline is to cook eggsuntil the white is firm and the yolk is just beginning to set (and is no longerrunny). “ Truth is: TheAmerican Egg Board and the Egg Nutrition Center provide a variety of egg safetybrochures for both consumers and institutional food service organizations. TheAmerican Egg Board is an active participant in the SafeServe program and amember-contributor to the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
CSPI says: “Theagencies were further hamstrung by a Congress that cut funding for a controlprogram just as it was beginning to show results and an industry that, exceptfor producers in Pennsylvania, resisted attempts to prevent SE contamination onthe farm.” Truth is: Thecontrol program was the PA Pilot Project which by definition was a pilot projectto determine effective means of reducing SE contamination. The findings fromthat project have been incorporated into industry HACCP programs. Rather thanresisting attempts to prevent SE contamination on the farm, the industry hasinitiated HACCP programs including training programs for producers. The industryhas committed substantial resources to establish national HACCP programs andthese programs are being established. Maybe we just weren’t fast enough ingetting the more than 3,300 flocks nation wide under immediate control.


Contrary to inaccurate and inflammatory statistics released 5/14/97 by theCenter For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Salmonella enteritidis(SE) bacteria in eggs are not causing ‘hundreds and possibly thousands offood-poisoning deaths each year.’ According to the document “Update onSalmonella serotype Enteritidis (SE) Infections” issued on 4/16/97 by theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention, “To date, 10 SEoutbreak-associated deaths have been reported for 1995 and 1996.” This CDCdocument summarizes egg-related Salmonella outbreaks for the years 1995 and1996. The egg is one of nature’s most nutritious, economical and versatilefoods. With proper care and handling, it poses no greater risk than any otherperishable food.

The number of outbreaks linked to Salmonella contamination of shell eggs hassteadily declined from a high of 77 in 1989 to 50 in 1996, according to JohnMason, former director of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)Salmonella enteritidis (Se) Control Program that tracks Se outbreaks and theircauses. According to Dr. Mason, the risk of contracting egg-relatedsalmonellosis is extremely low for healthy individuals. “There is oneoutbreak for every 1 billion eggs consumed,” he said. “The decreasecan be attributed to better handling and proper cooking of eggs by foodserviceestablishments,” said Dr. Mason. “Consumers can virtually eliminatethe risk at home by cooking eggs properly.” According to the American EggBoard, eggs should be cooked until the white is set and the yolk begins tothicken, but is not hard. Salmonella is destroyed when kept at a temperature of140 degrees F for three and half minutes or if it simply reaches 160 degrees F.

Many egg producers have voluntarily instituted quality assurance andsanitation measures to control Salmonella at the farm level. Research supportedby the egg industry, academia, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA isaddressing the causes of Salmonella and the best way to control the problem. Tominimize the risk of egg-related salmonellosis, consumers should follow thesepractices recommended by USDA, the FDA and the American Egg Board:

  • Buy refrigerated, grade A or AA eggs with clean, uncracked shells.
  • Discard eggs that are cracked or leaking.
  • If any shell falls into the egg when cracking it open, remove shell piecewith a clean utensil.
  • Keep eggs refrigerated at or below 40 degrees F in the original carton inthe coldest section of the refrigerator, usually the lowest shelf, not the door
  • When refrigerating a large amount of hot egg-rich dish or leftover, divideit into several small shallow containers so it will cool quickly.
  • Cook scrambled eggs or omelets until there is no visible liquid eggremaining.
  • Avoid keeping raw or cooked eggs and egg-containing foods out of therefrigerator for more than two hours including time for preparing and serving.
  • Use cooked recipes for Hollandaise and similar sauces, homemade ice cream,and eggnog.
  • Make sure recipes like French toast, crab cakes, Monte Cristo sandwiches,stuffing, and pasta dishes like lasagna are cooked all the way through (160degrees F at the center).
  • Wash hands, utensils, equipment, and work areas with hot soapy water beforeand after they come in contact with raw eggs.
  • When serving infants, pregnant women, the elderly, the ill or theimmuno-compromised, cook all egg dishes thoroughly or use a pasteurized eggproduct.

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Copyright© 1997. Egg Nutrition Center. All copy andimages.
Last updated 15 May 1997

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