While egg consumption is up, the egg industry is facing one troublesome and lingering problem: salmonella.
The salmonella enteritidis bacterium began showing up in eggs in the mid-1980s--causing often serious intestinal infections in those who ate tainted eggs--and it became a serious public health concern in the early 1990s.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 28,000 people were sickened by salmonella transmitted by eggs between 1985 and 1998, and almost 3,000 required hospitalization. And those statistics, the CDC said, significantly undercount the actual number of people who came down with egg-borne salmonella.
While salmonella cases have declined 44 percent nationally over the past three years, the federal government, the egg industry and consumer groups have been pressing for a more concerted effort to control the disease. A federal working group has set a goal of reducing salmonella cases from eggs by another 50 percent by 2005.
At last month's meeting of the working group, the United Egg Producers (UEP) unveiled its "conceptual framework" for a national egg quality assurance program. The group agreed in principle to a new and more intensive federal regulation that would standardize egg production and could include on-farm inspections.
"As an industry, we are generally opposed to government regulation," said Al Pope, president of the UEP. "On this issue, we don't see any other alternative."
The UEP's program also calls for mandatory egg refrigeration during storage and transportation, for tough health warnings on egg cartons and for the creation of a single federal food safety agency to oversee the program.
UEP officials argued the program should be taxpayer-funded, as are federal meat and poultry inspection programs. Currently, most egg safety monitoring is voluntary.
"Obviously, we want to see all the provisions spelled out before we embrace them, but the industry is receptive to the concept of a comprehensive farm-to-table egg safety program," said Kenneth Klippen, UEP vice president for government affairs. "This would be good for consumers, and we believe must be federally funded to be fair."
"By agreeing to the need for on-farm regulation, the egg industry has come a long way and has taken an important step," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which petitioned the Food and Drug Administration two years ago to require salmonella testing for all eggs and to force all tainted eggs off the market.
"Salmonella in eggs is a relatively easy problem to solve, and it should have been addressed more aggressively years ago by industry and the government," she said, adding: "At least now they are focusing on the key issues."
At the same time, the plan proposed by the egg industry falls short of what some consumer groups would like to see. The UEP proposal, for example, would continue the practice of selling eggs from salmonella-infected flocks--eggs that may or may not be infected. The egg industry has also opposed some specific federal proposals, including a carton label put forward by the FDA that would read: "Eggs may contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness, especially in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems."
Klippen called the proposed label "unduly alarmist" and said it would "create unfounded concerns" in consumers minds.
Officials from the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Program, a well-regarded pilot program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), also opposed the label, saying it would undermine credibility in their efforts to improve farm health practices. Using intensive monitoring and testing on the farms, the program has succeeded in substantially reducing salmonella in eggs produced in Pennsylvania, which supplies much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
According to the USDA, as many as 2.7 million eggs annually contain the salmonella bacteria, or about 1 in 20,000 eggs. The contamination generally occurs either as the egg develops in an infected hen or as it comes into contact with chicken fecal matter.
The disease in humans is an intestinal infection that usually begins within six to 72 hours of eating contaminated food. Symptoms can include fever, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, headache and nausea, and can last for days. It normally resolves without treatment in people who do not have underlying health problems.
Many of the salmonella outbreaks tracked by the CDC came from raw eggs or eggs that were not cooked at high enough temperatures. But even salmonella-infected eggs can be made safe by proper cooking and handling.
The Egg Nutrition Center recommends, for instance, that scrambled eggs and omelets be cooked until no liquid egg remains visible. The center, which is sponsored by the egg industry, also says that dishes that use eggs--such as crab cakes, Monte Cristo sandwiches, stuffing and pasta recipes--should be cooked to 160 degrees. And the center recommends dividing up any large portion of such dishes before refrigerating them. Smaller portions will cool more quickly, reducing the chance of contamination.
Officials say that salmonella outbreaks have also been traced to raw eggs that were not held at a refrigerated temperature of 45 degrees or lower before cooking. They recommend that raw eggs and dishes containing eggs be left out of the refrigerator no more than two hours.
Processed or liquefied eggs can be pasteurized to eliminate salmonella and other germs and bacteria.