In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Raj Chauhan, environmental consumer health supervisor at Tarrant County Public Health, discusses why raw eggs can pose a health risk and how to safely handle them in your recipes this holiday season.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: We’re in the holiday season, and people might be crafting recipes with raw eggs: eggnog, hollandaise sauce, cookie dough, tiramisu. What are some of the safety concerns associated with raw eggs?
Raj Chauhan: The No. 1 thing that comes up is salmonella, and the most common type of salmonella that people get sick from is salmonella enteritidis. It depends on the population we’re dealing with, whether it’s children, older adults, or people that are immunocompromised, (but) a healthy individual might have the typical symptoms of salmonella that include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach cramps. They may not even go to the doctor, but somebody else could become hospitalized, and it could be life-threatening at that point.
Allison: Why are raw eggs susceptible to salmonella? What’s happening there?
Chauhan: It’s because of the conditions where eggs are normally found. So salmonella, typically, especially this type, likes those conditions that are kind of wet, that don’t see a lot of sun. And environments like chicken coops, or areas where chicks are kept that are not being cleaned properly, and have moisture content and very little sunlight, are going to be perfect places for salmonella growth.
Allison: Some people might buy eggs from a local farmers market or grocery store. Can you talk about the different considerations that your average consumer should be thinking about?
Chauhan: Farmers markets have some regulation, for sure, but they don’t have regulation like a retail storefront or an establishment would have — it’s a little bit looser.
Eggs still require a permit, even at a farmers market, because they’re considered a TCS item, or time/temperature-controlled items — something that’s perishable or needs refrigeration.
I’m not saying that you’re going to get sick if you purchase eggs from a farmers market, but you want to be careful. There are some inherent risks there that you’re taking, especially if you’re wanting to eat something that’s raw, from a farmers market. Most of these eggs are not graded. Most likely, (they’re) not going to be pasteurized.
I would say that, if you want to produce an item that’s raw, whether it’s in cookie dough or whatever, buy something like Egg Beaters — something that’s a liquid egg that’s been pasteurized and processed. That way, it’s going to be a very, very, very low chance of anybody getting sick.
Allison: I’m glad you brought up grades and pasteurization. Can you talk a little bit about both of those in more detail?
Chauhan: Sure. Grades are more for quality — not something that’s going to say that, OK, you’re going to get sick from it. But the consumer needs to know, ‘OK, what is the quality of his type of egg? Is it a double A, the highest quality? Is it a B, which I can use for something else?’
And then pasteurization is a process of basically taking the item and putting it into an environment that’s highly heated. It’s not going to denature the product or cook the product, but it will remove the bacteria from the product by killing it. It’s a safe method. It’s been used with milk and dairy and stuff like this as well.
(Pasteurization is) what’s required of all our retail establishments. Farmers markets get a break on that. But it’s something still to consider, if you’re not going to cook the product. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the farmers market egg. It’s just, if you eat it raw, then you’re taking some risks there.
Allison: I know you mentioned egg beaters as a potential substitute in a recipe that requires raw eggs. But say there’s a listener who is determined to use your average egg, what would you recommend when it comes to storing and handling safely?
Chauhan: Sure, sure. If you’re just buying your typical pasteurized egg, you want to make sure that you’re keeping that product at least at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, if not colder. And you want to ensure that, anytime you handle the product, you wash your hands.
Say you’re changing a task, right, you’ve cracked open the shells, you’re beating the eggs, and then you want to do something else, like check on the cookies in your oven or something like that — everything you touch at that point you could possibly contaminate. If a kid or somebody touches the area and scratches their face, touches their eye, now you’ve introduced that into (their gastrointestinal) system.
Allison: I’m glad that you mentioned the child-in-the-kitchen scenario. I have a colleague, Rachel Behrndt, who is our newsroom baker, and she’s wondering about the vulnerability of different populations when it comes to salmonella. So is she, as an adult, less at risk than, say, her baby cousin who might want a dollop of that raw cookie dough?
Chauhan: Yeah, that’s a great question. There are some risks involved when you’re dealing with a child versus an adult. A child’s immune system is still developing. We have been introduced to different types of bacteria, viruses and stuff, so our body is able to comprehend and combat them with a little bit more ease as opposed to a child — and I’m talking about a healthy adult.
Allison: Thank you for sharing. So, to summarize, if a person is making a recipe that calls for raw eggs, it’s safer to get pasteurized eggs or a liquid egg. But then if they’re using a recipe where (the eggs will) be cooked, then it’s less important to distinguish between those types. Is that fair?
Chauhan: Yeah, yeah. If it’s cooked — and the typical temperature to cook eggs is 145 degrees Fahrenheit or above. But anything else, like for the raw products, if you use pasteurized, that’s pretty safe.
Allison: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about egg safety and/or food safety more generally as we approach the holidays?
Chauhan: Hand washing is probably the most important thing, I can’t stress that enough. Vigorously scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap, and then wash. Vigorously washing for 20 seconds is really important to remove most of that bacteria — we’re not killing the bacteria by washing our hands.
Also, a lot of people will have the items in the refrigerator, but when they take the product out, and they’re prepping, sometimes it gets left out for a little bit, right? What we usually recommend: Put the product, the eggs, in a kind of ice water bath, where it’s still temping at 41 (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower, and that will keep it cold.
And then same with the end product. Maybe you’re having guests over, and you want to get everything situated prior to the guests coming in. So you could put some of that (end product) in ice and then start it occasionally to keep the temperature homogenous throughout the product.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.