Pasta Carbonara, a gorgeous Caesar Salad, blanched asparagus spears and toast points dipped into a barely soft-boiled egg, or a small guilty pleasure like sneaking a spoonful of raw cookie dough. When I think of these foods, I think of the luxurious feeling on my tongue, the delicious saltiness playing against the rich creaminess, the deep satisfaction of the complex relationship of the act of eating, tasting, smelling, and yet providing for basic physical nutritional needs. What I usually don’t think of is the potential for illness with the possibility of hospitalization or even death. However, all of the foods just mentioned have a common ingredient that could lead to such an outcome: undercooked or raw eggs.
Most cooks are very careful when handling raw chicken, being aware of potential salmonella contamination. They typically cook the chicken to 160 F – the USDA’s recommendation to kill the salmonella bacteria – wash their hands, surfaces and utensils carefully after handling raw chicken, and keep everything separate. Some cooks are even cautious of eggs. However, most cooks are not likely aware that the USDA also recommends that eggs be cooked to 160 degrees. This would essentially preclude not only the above-mentioned foods, but also most breakfast egg dishes, Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and even many eggnog or ice cream recipes which call for little to no cooking of the eggs.
While this may seem like heartbreaking news to many food lovers, there are several ways to accommodate many of these classic dishes while minimizing the health risks associated with salmonella contamination. One of these ways is in the selection of the eggs you purchase. Current industrial farming practices are geared towards maximizing output while economizing on inputs. Inputs in egg farming include, amongst other things, feed and space. As a result, the egg-laying hens are often housed in extremely cramped enclosed quarters involving small, stacked cages with very little exposure to sun and low-cost grain to feed them. These conditions work toward creating an environment that is conducive to sickness, virus and bacteria that are spread easily. While the regulated industrial farms take steps to lessen the spread of disease through regimens of antibiotics and other additives, some farmers take a different approach through more sustainable farming practices.
Sustainable egg and chicken farms are rising in popularity. Most of these farms have gotten rid of the compartmentalized cages and give the chickens more room to roam, sunshine, fresh air, and a more varied diet, including grasses, bugs, supplemented by organically grown grain. The outcome of these free-range, organic practices is healthier chickens that are exposed to less disease and producing far superior eggs. Further, sustainably raised eggs are richer in nutritional values such as folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12, calcium, zinc, sulfur, magnesium, carotenoids, and choline, to name a few. Additionally, these eggs have a richer flavor with a firmer structure that makes for a far different experience with even the most delicate dish.
While purchasing sustainable eggs is not an absolute guarantee of preventing food borne illnesses, it goes a long way towards healthier and tastier menu. Moreover, you can further reduce risk of contaminated eggs by washing the outer shell off first before cracking them open, since that is where most of the salmonella bacteria live on eggs. So, find your local organic free range chicken farm and eat that creamy Caesar salad, have your velvety Eggs Benedict and enjoy a luscious Pasta Carbonara.