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Making Sure Your Eggs Are Safe to Eat
America’s egg farmers work closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help ensure the safest and highest quality eggs possible. When cooked properly, eggs are a safe, wholesome and convenient food for you and your family to enjoy. Eggs are all-natural and contain a number of nutrients. One egg has 13 essential vitamins and minerals in varying amounts, high-quality protein and antioxidants, all for 70 calories.
The risk of an egg being contaminated with Salmonella bacteria is very low, about 1 in 20,000 eggs. But there’s no reason to take the risk of contracting foodborne illness. Proper handling of eggs can reduce the risk. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm or, for dishes containing eggs, until an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit is reached because Salmonella is destroyed by the heat of cooking.
In addition to thoroughly cooking your eggs, follow these simple food-handling practices:
- Clean your hands, as well as the surfaces and utensils that come into contact with raw eggs – an important step for avoiding cross-contamination.
- Separate eggs from other foods in your grocery cart, grocery bags and in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.
- Keep eggs in the main section of the refrigerator at a temperature between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit – eggs accidentally left at room temperature should be discarded after two hours, or one hour in warm weather.
Read on for a list of frequently asked questions when it comes to egg safety and learn more about safely handling food by visiting our Safe Food Handling Tips page.
- What is foodborne illness?
- How safe are eggs?
- Are eggs the only source of Salmonella bacteria?
- Are Salmonella bacteria most likely to be found in the egg’s white or yolk?
- Doesn’t the eggshell protect an egg from bacteria?
- Does a blood spot mean an egg is contaminated?
- Are the twisted, ropey strands of egg white safe?
- What will happen if I eat an egg containing Salmonella?
- What usually causes salmonellosis?
- What is being done about Salmonella in eggs?
- Is the risk of salmonellosis from eggs increasing?
- How can I protect myself and my family from foodborne illness?
- How can I tell if my eggs have spoiled?
- Are there hormones in my eggs?
- Do antibiotics in eggs contribute to antibiotic resistance?
- Is genetic engineering used to produce eggs? Do eggs contain GMOs?
- Are there any people who are at increased risk from foodborne illness?
- Tell me more about egg products and how I should use and store them.
- How can I be sure my children and I color and decorate hard-boiled eggs safely for Easter?
- Is there a safe way to empty eggshells for decorating?
- Can I use the contents of eggshells I’ve emptied for decorating?
- What food-safety steps should I take for summer picnics?
- What’s the best way to pack eggs for a camping trip?
- Are there any safety concerns when cooking for a crowd?
What is foodborne illness?
The way food is processed and prepared is important because all foods have the ability to carry microorganisms (like bacteria and viruses) or toxins that can cause illness. If microorganisms or toxins are introduced to food or if bacteria are allowed to grow in or on food without being killed (usually by heat) before eating, foodborne illness can result. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and headache.
How safe are eggs?
The risk of getting a foodborne illness from eggs is very low. In addition to food, bacteria also need moisture, a favorable temperature and time in order to multiply and increase the risk of illness. In the rare event that an egg contains bacteria, you can reduce the risk by proper chilling and eliminate it by proper cooking. When you handle eggs with care, they pose no greater food-safety risk than any other perishable food.
Over recent years, the bacterium Salmonella enteritidis (Se) has been found inside a small number of eggs. Scientists estimate that, on average across the U.S., only 1 of every 20,000 eggs might contain the bacteria. So, the likelihood that an egg might contain Se is extremely small – 0.005% (five one-thousandths of one percent). At this rate, if you’re an average consumer, you might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years.
Other types of microorganisms could be deposited along with dirt on the outside of an egg. So, in the U.S., eggshells are washed and sanitized to remove possible hazards. You can further protect yourself and your family by discarding eggs that are unclean, cracked, broken or leaking and making sure you and your family members use good hygiene practices, including properly washing your hands and keeping them clean.
Are eggs the only source of Salmonella bacteria?
No. Salmonella bacteria are widely found in nature and easily spread. The bacteria can be found in the intestinal tracts of animals, birds, reptiles, insects and people. While the egg itself may not be contaminated when you buy it, it can become contaminated from improper handling, such as with unclean hands and contact with pets, other foods and kitchen equipment, too.
Are Salmonella bacteria most likely to be found in the egg’s white or yolk?
Bacteria, if they are present at all, are most likely to be in the white and will be unable to grow, mostly due to lack of nutrients. As the egg ages, however, the white thins and the yolk membrane weakens. This makes it possible for bacteria to reach the nutrient-dense yolk where they can grow over time if the egg is kept at warm temperatures. But, in a clean, uncracked, fresh shell egg, internal contamination occurs only rarely.
Doesn’t the eggshell protect an egg from bacteria?
Yes and no. The egg has many natural, built-in barriers to help prevent bacteria from entering and growing. These protect the egg on its way from the hen to your home. But, although it does help, the porous shell itself is not a foolproof bacterial barrier. For additional safety, government regulations require that eggs be carefully washed with special detergent and sanitized.
Other protective barriers include the shell and yolk membranes and layers of the white which fight bacteria in several ways. In addition to containing antibacterial compounds such as lysozyme, layers of the white discourage bacterial growth because they are alkaline, bind nutrients bacteria need and/or don’t provide nutrients in a form that bacteria can use. The thick white discourages the movement of bacteria. The last layer of white is composed of thick ropey strands which have little of the water that bacteria need but a high concentration of the white’s protective materials. This layer holds the yolk centered in the egg where it receives the maximum protection from all the other layers.
Does a blood spot mean an egg is contaminated?
No. Blood or meat spots are occasionally found on an egg yolk. They’re caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the yolk surface when it’s being formed or by a similar accident in the wall of the oviduct. Most eggs with blood spots are detected by electronic spotters and never reach the market. But, even with mass scanners, it’s impossible to catch them all. Both chemically and nutritionally, eggs with blood spots are fit to eat. You can remove the spot with the tip of a knife, if you wish.
Are the twisted, ropey strands of egg white safe?
Yes. These strands are the chalazae which anchor the yolk in the center of the thick white. They’re composed of nutritious egg albumen and do not indicate contamination. In fact, the more prominent the chalazae, the fresher the egg. These natural parts of the egg don’t interfere with cooking or beating of the white and you don’t need to remove them.
What will happen if I eat an egg containing Salmonella?
If an egg containing Salmonella has been kept refrigerated and someone who uses good hygiene practices serves it to you immediately after proper cooking, you’ll simply have a nutritious meal. If the egg has been improperly handled, though, you might experience the foodborne illness called salmonellosis. You could have symptoms of abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever and/or headache within 6 to 72 hours after eating. The symptoms usually last only a day or two in healthy people but can lead to serious complications for the very young, pregnant women, the elderly, the ill and those with immune system disorders. Anyone who has had salmonellosis may pass along the bacteria for several weeks after recovering, but salmonellosis is seldom fatal. While the risk of getting salmonellosis is very small, there’s no need to take chances because cooking kills Salmonella.
What usually causes salmonellosis?
Salmonellosis outbreaks are most often associated with animal foods, including chicken, eggs, pork and cheese, but have also been reported related to cantaloupe, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, orange juice and cereal, among other foods. Human carriers play a big role in transmitting some types of salmonellosis. Salmonella bacteria can easily spread from one food to another, too.
If not properly handled, Salmonella bacteria can double every 20 minutes and a single bacterium can multiply into more than a million in 6 hours. But, properly prepared egg recipes served in individual portions and promptly eaten are rarely a problem. You can ensure that your eggs will maintain their high quality and safety by using good hygiene, cooking, refrigeration and handling practices.
What is being done about Salmonella in eggs?
The egg industry, the public health community and government agencies have been working diligently to deal with Salmonella enteritidis.
Egg industry programs start by keeping breeder flocks free of Salmonella. Ongoing research is dedicated to discovering how Se gets into flocks and how it might be blocked. The industry also uses strict quality-control practices and sanitation procedures all through production, processing and preparation. This includes testing chicks to be sure they’re free of Salmonella, bio-security (such as washing and sanitizing not only the eggs, but facilities, too) and other measures. To block Se from multiplying in the egg in the rare event it’s present, eggs are held at cool temperatures following packing and throughout transportation. Important, too, are industry education programs which encourage food preparers to use safe food-handling practices.
Along with state representatives, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have developed new national standards with the aim of reducing and eventually eliminating egg-related salmonellosis. The strategies include a scientific, risk-based, farm-to-table plan covering production, processing, transport, storage, retail handling and delivery. The plan also includes education on the responsibilities of consumers, inspectors and food handlers at all levels.
Is the risk of salmonellosis from eggs increasing?
No. The number of salmonellosis incidents related to eggs has decreased markedly since the early to mid 1990s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which track foodborne-illness outbreaks, have found that the number of egg-associated outbreaks has decreased over the years. The fact that there are fewer cases of egg-related salmonellosis is considered to be the result of on-farm quality-control programs, refrigeration during transport and storage, and food-safety education for home and foodservice preparers.
How can I protect myself and my family from foodborne illness?
Along with other food and food-related organizations as well as government food and education agencies, American Egg Board is a founding member of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. This unique industry and government coalition has the aim of informing consumers about safe food-handling practices through the Fight BAC!® campaign. By following the Fight BAC!® recommendations to clean, separate, cook and chill, you can help prevent BAC from causing foodborne illness.
How can I tell if my eggs have spoiled?
The faster you use your eggs, the less time any potential bacteria will have to multiply. However, when properly handled and stored, eggs rarely spoil. Instead, as an egg ages, the white becomes thinner, the yolk becomes flatter and the yolk membrane weakens. Although these changes may affect appearance, they don’t indicate spoilage and don’t have any great effect on the nutritional quality of the egg or its functions in recipes. Rather than spoiling, if you keep eggs long enough, they’re more likely to simply dry up – especially if they’re stored in a moisture-robbing, frost-free refrigerator.
But, like all natural organic matter, eggs can eventually spoil through the action of spoilage organisms. Although they’re unpleasant, spoilage organisms don’t cause foodborne illness. The bacteria Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Micrococcus and Bacillus may be found on egg shell surfaces because all these species can tolerate dry conditions. As the egg ages, though, these bacteria decline and are replaced by spoilage bacteria, such as coliform and Flavobacterium, but the most common are several types of Pseudomonas. Pseudomonascan grow at temperatures just above refrigeration and below room temperatures and, if they’re present in large numbers, may give eggs a sour or fruity odor and a blue-green coloring.
Although it is more likely for bacteria to cause spoilage during storage, mold growth can occur under very humid storage conditions or if eggs are washed in dirty water. Molds such as Penicillium, Alternaria and Rhizopus may be visible as spots on the shell and can penetrate the shell to reach the egg.
Discard any eggs with shells – or, for hard-boiled eggs, egg white surfaces – that don’t look or feel clean, normally colored and dry. A slimy feel can indicate bacterial growth and, regardless of color, powdery spots that come off on your hand may indicate mold.
Are there hormones in my eggs?
Whether it says so on the carton or not, no hormones are ever given to egg laying hens. All eggs produced in the U.S. are all-natural and do not contain added hormones.
Do antibiotics in eggs contribute to antibiotic resistance?
In general, eggs are antibiotic-free because antibiotics are not used on a continuous basis in the egg industry. While antibiotics may be used for hen health in accordance to FDA regulations, the probability of antibiotic residue being present in eggs is extremely low because hens being treated for sickness rarely produce eggs and/or their egg production is likely to severely decrease. Because so few antibiotics are used and are used to such a small degree, they aren’t likely to contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Is genetic engineering used to produce eggs? Do eggs contain GMOs?
Only traditional selective breeding is used in the egg-laying industry. Based on their positive characteristics, specific cocks and hens are chosen as parents for breeding egg layers, a practice which doesn’t involve genetic engineering. According to the USDA, eggs in their shells are not a genetically modified (GM) food. Scientific research also has confirmed that none of the genetically engineered materials that may appear in some hen feed are passed into the eggs.
Are there any people who are at increased risk from foodborne illness?
Yes. Certain people are more likely to become ill or may be affected more severely than normal, healthy individuals and are at increased risk of developing complications from foodborne illness. Infants and children under age 10 contract salmonellosis more often than other age groups. Serve the very young, pregnant women, the elderly, the ill or the immuno-compromised only dishes made from fully-cooked shell eggs or pasteurized shell eggs or pasteurized egg products.
Tell me more about egg products and how I should use and store them.
Egg products are convenient forms of eggs made by breaking and processing shell eggs. Many egg products are becoming more readily available at consumer retail markets. Most supermarkets now carry egg substitutes, dried and/or refrigerated liquid egg whites and frozen egg entrees, among other egg products.
Federal regulations require that all uncooked egg products be pasteurized. Pasteurization destroys only those bacteria which might be present at the time of processing. All pasteurized foods, including egg products, can become contaminated if you don’t handle them properly. Important handling tips are:
- Avoid buying any frozen egg products which show signs of thawing. Return frozen egg products to the freezer as soon as possible after you buy them. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight or under cold running water in tightly sealed containers, not at room temperature. Use thawed egg products promptly. Cover and refrigerate any unused portions and use them within three days.
- Refrigerate liquid egg products as soon as possible after you buy them. Pasteurized liquid egg whites can be refrigerated for about 3 to 4 months unopened or about one week after opening, or can be frozen indefinitely. Check the label on other products because shelf life can vary.
- As long as you keep them dry, you can store dried egg whites indefinitely at room temperature, although it’s better to store them in a cool place away from light and strong odors. Store other dried egg products below 70° F in a dark, cool place, preferably in your refrigerator. Reconstitute only the amount of dried egg product you’ll use immediately. After you open it, tightly seal the container and refrigerate any unused portions.
- Follow the label instructions to refrigerate or freeze specialty egg products.
- Use a clean utensil to dip egg products from their original containers. Pour an egg product only if the container is designed for pouring and the outside is clean.
How can I be sure my children and I color and decorate hard-boiled eggs safely for Easter?
- If you do plan to eat your Easter eggs after the big celebration, just follow these simple rules:
- Wash your hands between all the steps of cooking, cooling, dyeing and decorating.
- Be sure that all the decorating materials you use are food safe.
- Keep the eggs refrigerated as much as possible. Put them back into the refrigerator whenever you’re not working with them.
- If you hide the decorated eggs, put them where they won’t come into contact with pets, other animals, birds or lawn chemicals.
- After you’ve found all the hidden eggs, throw out any that are cracked or have been out at room temperature for more than two hours.
Is there a safe way to empty eggshells for decorating?
Yes. To safely empty an eggshell, first wash the egg using water warmer than the egg, then dry it. (For extra safety, you can also rinse the egg in a bleach solution – 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water.) With a sterilized long needle or small, sharp skewer, prick a small hole in the small end of the egg and a large hole in the large end. Carefully chip away bits of shell around the large hole until it’s big enough to fit the tip of a baster. Stick the needle or skewer into the yolk to break it.
Either shake the egg large-end down over a cup or bowl until the contents come out or use a baster to push out the contents. Press the bulb of the baster to push air into the egg and let the contents fall into the cup. If the contents don’t come out easily, insert the needle again and move it around to be sure both the shell membranes and yolk are broken. Rinse the empty shell under cool running water. Stand it on end to drain and dry.
Can I use the contents of eggshells I’ve emptied for decorating?
You can use the contents of emptied eggshells in a recipe which includes mixed yolks and whites and calls for thorough cooking. Use the contents immediately or freeze them, labeling the storage container with the date and number of eggs it contains. You can keep mixed whole eggs frozen for a year at 0° F or lower. Most baked dishes, such as casseroles, custards, quiches, cakes or breads are good uses for eggs emptied from their shells.
What food-safety steps should I take for summer picnics?
If you tote raw eggs or plain hard-boiled eggs on outings, leave them in their shells. Pack them along with deviled eggs and other cold dishes in an insulated bag or cooler with ice or freezer packs containing commercial coolant. While you’re away, put the cooler in the shade and open it as infrequently as you can to help keep these foods at 40° F or lower. The foods will stay refrigerator-cold as long as the ice lasts or the coolant remains almost at freezing. Use thermal containers to keep hot egg dishes hot, 140° F or higher.
For pickled eggs, use quart-sized or smaller containers if you intend to consume the eggs intermittently over a period of time. Refrigerate pickled egg containers and, to avoid introducing bacteria, use a clean utensil to remove the eggs from the pickling solution.
What’s the best way to pack eggs for a camping trip?
For hiking, back-packing, camping and boating, when refrigeration facilities aren’t available, buy dried eggs from supermarkets or sporting goods stores and reconstitute them with purified water. Note that neither petroleum jelly nor wax is either antibacterial or a preservative. Coating shell eggs with petroleum jelly or wax is not a suitable substitute for refrigeration.
Are there any safety concerns when cooking for a crowd?
In addition to the need for you to observe all the previous safety points, quantity cooking presents special challenges. For a safe and successful function:
- Make sure that refrigeration facilities are adequate to keep the entire quantity of cold foods well chilled at all times, including any raw eggs or egg mixtures.
- Break eggs out of their shells on the day of the event. Break them only as you need to use them, rather than pooling (breaking eggs together in large quantities and mixing the yolk and whites). Immediately return any unused raw eggs, broken-out eggs or egg mixtures to the refrigerator.
- Discard eggs, egg mixtures or cooked egg dishes that have been out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours (30 minutes to 1 hour if the temperature is 85° F or higher).
- Prepare foods in batches according to the rate of service – for scrambled eggs and omelets, no more than 3 quarts at a time. If holding is necessary, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold by using a steam table or simulating one by nesting two pans together. Fill the lower pan with very hot water or ice and top it with the pan containing the hot or cold food. Avoid holding hot foods for any longer than 30 minutes. Discard any cold foods once the ice begins to melt.
- When converting a family-sized recipe to more servings, increase the cooking time along with the ingredients and pan size. For ease in measuring, 1 dozen Large e
Additional Egg Safety Resources:
Call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (888) 674-6874 or the egg nutrition media hotline at 1-855-EGGS411 (1-855-344-7411).
Egg Safety Center
Partnership for Food Safety Education
United Egg Producers