Salmonella & Eggs: Causes, Regulations, and Taking Action
Pooled or combined eggs are at an increased risk of causing salmonella (S. Enteritidis) because in the pooled or combined state, the bacteria thrives and expands.
What are the regulations?
The model food code requires eggs to be used immediately and not left for any long period of time. This regulation is due to the fact that raw eggs and their shells can carry salmonella. If only one egg contains salmonella, the entire pool will be contaminated; the bacteria will grow and the risk of an outbreak presents itself.
What are the facts and why are there so many outbreaks?
In 2004 a study* was conducted by staff of the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHSNet). The network, created by the CDC, is comprised of environmental health specialists and epidemiologists at federal, state, and local levels who collaborate to evaluate food preparation practices and policies and their relation to foodborne illness.
They used a group of 153 restaurants in 13 different urban areas and found that only 26% stored their eggs at the appropriate temperature, and 54% pooled their eggs. The restaurants that pooled their eggs did so for between 4 and 6 hours. There have been several cases of salmonella that can be traced back to the improper handling of eggs in restaurants.
Studies like this clearly indicate that these outbreaks are due to the improper handling of eggs. The high-risk practice of leaving pooled and combined eggs for an extended period of time before use, coupled with eggs being held above the appropriate temperature, have resulted in salmonella transmission and outbreaks across the country.
Do food establishments take these risks seriously?
Food safety consultants frequently find pooled and combined eggs in food service establishments that get a wave of customers at breakfast. It’s easy to mistakenly leave pooled eggs unattended when there is a rush and there are too many things to pay attention to at once.
Interestingly, sanitarians often find that restaurant operators are aware of the fact that pooling eggs is not permitted, but they continue to allow it on a regular basis. Not only are pooled eggs allowed, but the containers of pooled eggs are held out of temperature for long time periods, fostering the growth of salmonella.
When the health department arrives for an inspection, pooled eggs are one of the first items that are discarded. Why are people in food service establishments doing something that can harm customers and negatively affect their business? There doesn’t seem to be a logical answer to this question, since it carries on in spite of the risks.
So, what’s the solution?
The answer to this problem is pasteurized eggs, which have been treated at a high enough temperature that the salmonella is destroyed before use. An establishment can buy shelled eggs or liquid eggs that are pasteurized to minimize or lower risk of salmonella.
Unfortunately, pasteurized eggs cost more than non-pasteurized, fresh eggs, so this may deter food service establishments from purchasing them. Any facility that feeds children, the elderly, or the immunocompromised should be using pasteurized eggs for the safety of their guests.
Restaurant operators MUST be more vigilant regarding the high-risk practices that take place in their facilities. Employees need training to ensure that eggs are stored at the correct temperature, not pooled, and are cooked to the correct temperature.
Using pasteurized eggs is more costly, but if establishments invest in them, will minimize risk of salmonella, that we see in so many locations. That is our priority, and we will continue to encourage establishments to follow our lead to help prevent future outbreaks.
Beth Torin, RD, MA
Chief Operating Officer
Beth Torin served as the Executive Director for the New York City Department of Health Office of Food Safety (NYCDOHMH) for 14 years.