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Undercooked eggs pose salmonella risk

Health experts are warning about the dangers of undercooked or raw eggs after a salmonella outbreak in the United States.

Experts have some simple advice when it comes to eating runny eggs these days: Run away.

Food safety experts warn eggs should be cooked thoroughly in order to avoid the risk of salmonella. ((Spencer Green/Associated Press))
With salmonella poisoning concerns triggering the recall of more than a half-billion eggs in the U.S., warnings are becoming more dire every day against eating undercooked yolks and translucent egg whites.

But what's a home cook to do, especially when hit by cravings for eggs Benedict, pasta carbonara, homemade caesar dressing or other dishes that call for raw or only slightly cooked eggs?

There's no one answer for every recipe, but cooking and food safety experts agree on a few basics to help keep foodies in the kitchen and out of the hospital.

Don't eat any questionable eggs — cooked or otherwise — if they are cracked or have been sitting in the refrigerator too long. Eggs remain fresh in the fridge for about a month after purchase.

"Eggs are cheap. Throw them away. It's that simple," said Brad Barnes, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Proper cooking is key

Fried or scrambled eggs must be cooked to a temperature of 72 C (160 F). This means about two to three minutes per side for a fried egg, or until solid for scrambled. A digital instant thermometer is the best way of knowing when you've hit the proper temperature.

For fried eggs, take a break from sunny-side up and try eggs over hard: fried on one side, then flipped and fried well on the other.

Mopping up oozing yolks with toast? Bad idea. Consider making hard-boiled eggs, rather than soft, by gently simmering them for about 15 minutes. Hard-boiled eggs last about a week in the refrigerator.

As for poached eggs, a little longer is a little better. Though most recipes suggest short cooking times in barely simmering water, for safety it's best to let the egg go for about five minutes at a gentle boil.

Drinking raw eggs for a protein boost? That's an even worse idea, given the risk of salmonella and its violent nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and temporary residency in the bathroom.

"We've got enough issues. Who needs to be barfing because of raw eggs?" asked Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and author of BarfBlog.com, which highlights food-handling problems in the news and in popular culture.

He advises cooks to use a food thermometer in their frittatas, quiches and other egg dishes — and, in fact, when preparing meat or anything that poses dangers when undercooked.

But what's a foodie to do when raw egg is essential to a recipe, as in mayonnaise and carbonara? Take a tip from Paul Stern, who cooks for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, an Ashford, Conn., camp for seriously ill children, many with compromised immune systems.

Edvaldo Pereira mixes pasteurized eggs into dough for egg pasta at Dave's Fresh Pasta in Somerville, Mass. ((Josh Reynolds/Associated Press))
Last year, the camp cracked about 300 shell eggs every morning. This year, it switched (before the recall) to a pasteurized liquid egg product.

"I wouldn't be consuming or serving raw eggs any more than I'd be eating or serving raw chicken," said Stern.

As the name implies, pasteurized egg product — usually sold in cartons near milk in the store — has been gently heated to kill off pathogens, meaning it should be safe to consume even when not fully cooked. It's not a perfect substitute, but for most home cooks it should do the job just fine.

"It's not exactly the same as a fresh egg, of course, but certainly in this instance — and I'm sure they'll have this situation cleaned up pretty rapidly — I think everybody should be able to make do for a few days," said Barnes.

1,300 salmonella cases reported in U.S.

The salmonella bacteria concerns, which centre on eggs from two Iowa farms, prompted a recall of about 550 million eggs in the United States.

The federal Centers for Disease Control has said there could be as many as 1,300 salmonella illnesses linked to the eggs, and that for every reported case there could be 30 or more that go unreported.

But San Francisco-based food scientist Harold McGee, author of the upcoming Keys to Good Cooking, isn't all that worried.

Though he gets his eggs from local producers, he said he wouldn't hesitate to consume uncooked supermarket eggs in a recipe. He would draw the line at serving them to a pregnant woman, child or elderly person or someone with an illness that might weaken their immunity.

Overall, he thinks the odds of getting sick favour the home cook.

"For home cooks, it's less of a problem than for institutions that are going to be cracking lots and lots of eggs and then pooling them to make a particular dish," he said. "The moment you start to add more than one egg to what you're making, mathematically your odds of having a problem go up."