Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=106221
Story Retrieval Date: 3/7/2014 5:17:32 AM CST
A bad egg can ruin a holiday.
Consumers hoping to ring in the season with a cup of traditional eggnog or a spoonful of Christmas cookie dough often have had to balance fears that raw eggs could transform a night of celebration into hours of sickness from salmonella poisoning.
But an area company is helping to change all that. National Pasteurized Eggs, Inc., in south suburban Lansing, produces about a million pasteurized eggs each day, which are shipped out to customers across North America. The patented process, one of the first for egg pasteurization, kills all of the bacteria, including salmonella.
“You can crack the (pasteurized) eggs and eat them raw like Rocky," without worrying about getting sick, said Gregory M. West, president of the company, comparing the eggs to other animal products that have long been pasteurized. “Most people would never even think of drinking raw milk as their standard because of the risk.”
Approximately one in 10,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella, West said, pointing out that this is roughly the same number of eggs on display at a major grocery chain.
Typically, 40,000 cases of salmonella poisoning are reported in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the actual number may be more than thirty times greater since mild cases aren’t diagnosed or reported. Symptoms can include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, lasting four to seven days.
Sometimes, though, the infection can spread from the intestines to the blood stream and into other parts of the body, possibly causing death, according to the CDC, which cautions that the elderly, infants and people with impaired immune symptoms are more likely to see these severe effects. About 400 people die each year from the salmonella infection.
Contaminated eggs are the leading cause of salmonella, which is the top cause for food-borne illness, West said, making pasteurized eggs the logical choice for many.
“It’s like an airbag in the car,” said Matthew Botos, the former director of the Illinois Center for Food Safety and Technology and a food safety consultant. “Everybody should wear a seatbelt, but you feel much safer when you have an airbag.”
This “airbag” of egg safety was first developed in 1985, following a series of salmonella outbreaks. Today, the eggs are produced with the brand name Davidson’s Safest Choice and distributed across the United States, Mexico and Canada, with more international growth planned for the future. The process (see audio slideshow) includes an hour spent in a hot water bath, just warm enough to kill the bacteria without cooking the eggs. “It’s like a giant Jacuzzi,” West said. “You have a very efficient, more cost effective method of pasteurizing eggs, giving us the opportunity to pasteurize a lot more eggs than otherwise could have been expected.”
The eggs are typically marked up in price by 25 to 50 percent in the marketplace, but West said they’re worth the splurge, even in tough economic times.
“You can’t take food safety away as your answer to cost savings,” West said, emphasizing the food industry, in particular. “If you’re going to be in the food business, food safety needs to be your priority in recessionary times and in good times. You will have bad times if you have a food-borne illness.”
Another group that should stick to pasteurized eggs, according to West, is the 35 percent of people who are highly susceptible to the bacteria, including children, the elderly and pregnant women.
“Some of our biggest customers are moms with little kids because the moms know they’re not going to serve up salmonella when they serve up the eggs,” West said, adding that eliminating the bacteria can also extend shelf life and enhance taste. “A pasteurized egg, 40 days after the hen has laid it, tastes as good the first five days. A regular egg has diminished in flavor profile every day since the first three days.”
And, as holiday baking season approaches, West said the priority now is raising awareness about the benefits of pasteurized eggs for consumers.
“They know their milk is pasteurized, they know their juice is pasteurized, they know their cheeses, butters are all pasteurized, and they know that’s there for safety. So they assume their eggs are pasteurized,” West said. “And they’re not.”