Which came first? The Chicken, The Egg, The Salmonella

 I got a disconcerting message in my voice-mail yesterday.  It went something like this:

Our records indicate you purchased Brand-named Y’s eggs from Big Warehouse Club sometime between April 5 and August 19, 2010.  These eggs may be tainted with salmonella and have been recalled. You may return them during regular business hours.

This is disconcerting to me on at least three distinct levels.

I know that little strip on the back of my membership card, which doubles as a credit card, collects all sorts of my purchasing data, and I suppose I should be happy that Big Warehouses Club is kind enough to call me to let me know my Brand Name Y’s eggs are possibly tainted.  Still, this pre-recorded message about the poison in my food seems intrusive and rather big-brotherish.  But, that’s only the beginning.

What is anyone doing with eggs still in their refrigerator since the beginning of April?  I consider rummaging through my pile of recyclables to retrieve an egg carton with an April date, just to see the look on the Customer Service Clerk’s face when I return eggs that have been in my refrigerator for a full quarter of the year.

Still, I suppose the thing that really takes the cake is that I should be afraid of my eggs.  Doesn’t everyone know that Salmonella and chickens come together?  Are people unaware that eggs come out of the orifice of a chicken?  I mean what came first, the chicken, or the egg?  Or was it Salmonella?   Then my microbiologist-mind begins to run wild:  Are poultry farmers routinely feeding flocks antibiotics to eliminate Salmonella?  Don’t people read anymore:  cookbooks, restaurant menus, notes from their mother?  When did people stop just knowing that eggs need to be cooked.  Okay, Rocky Balboa can get away with drinking raw eggs, but didn’t  viewers cringe like I did when Rocky broke those eggs into a blender without benefit of pasteurization, poaching, or even washing.  Incredible!

Okay, so here are the facts:

This might gross people out, I know my sister never forgave me when I told her the bare truth about eggs over her sunny-side-up breakfast: eggs are the reproductive cell of a chicken.  Eggs are perfectly designed to support and nurture the growth of a chick.  In the white of an egg is something called lysozyme, an enzyme which chews up bacteria. In other words, egg whites have natural protection against bacterial invasion.  As a quick aside, there is lysozyme in  tears and snot, too.  A microbiologist discovered this when his nose dripped snot onto his petri dish and killed his culture.

Egg producers use preventive means like cleaning and sanitizing the chicken houses, feeding chickens Salmonella-free feed, and starting out with Salmonella-free chicks.  They test flocks regularly and put corrective measures taken to rid infected chickens of Salmonella.   This can only mean slaughter or antibiotics. Antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella are on the rise.

Egg producers wash the outside of eggs before they go to market.  The inside of most eggs are free of Salmonella; if Salmonella gets inside the egg it’s usually confined to the white, unless the egg is old and not refrigerated.  Only about 1 in 20,000 eggs has Salmonella inside.  This sounds pretty low until you consider the number of eggs sold every year:  75 billion.  That means even in the best of situations, there are 7.5 million eggs sold a year with Salmonella.

Free range hens, near their coop and surrounde...
Free range hens, near their coop and surrounded by electrified poultry netting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although some believe that free-range or organic chickens are free of Salmonella, I doubt it.  Salmonella is common in mice, birds flying overhead, and in the soil.  Chickens can live with Salmonella like people can live with E. coli; it rarely makes them sick:  it’s considered part of their natural flora.  (I like this word flora for all the bacteria blooming around us, because face it, we each have more bacterial cells in and on our bodies, than human cells.  It’s true.  Really.)

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph sh...
Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even though there is a chance of getting Salmonella from an egg, that’s not the most likely source.  Some of your best friends may be carriers:  Dogs, cats, turtles, and even your neighbor are common carriers with no symptoms.  Up to half of dogs, a third of cats, and 1 in five people carry Salmonella.  So be careful who you let prepare your food, or lick your face.

Please cook your eggs. If a recipe calls for raw eggs, perhaps you like home-made mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing, buy pasteurized eggs.  Salmonella is out there in the environment.  There’s no such thing as risk-free eggs.

Please use safe food handling techniques.  All the time.

And as for disconcerting voice-mail messages:  Thank you, and Delete.

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