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Is that Right? Sunny-side-up eggs are okay to eat?

(Courtesy of Eggland's Best)

I did a double-take when I saw an ad for Eggland's Best eggs on TV the other night. Were those really sunny-side-up eggs on that plate? And was someone really going to eat them?

I am among those who take warnings about eating undercooked (and raw) eggs seriously. Maybe my odds of getting salmonella from a runny egg or a hunk of unbaked cookie dough are low, but it just doesn't seem worth the risk. (Having once cared for my young son as he suffered through a salmonella infection he apparently got from a pet salamander, I'm particularly keen to avoid a repeat.) So it's been years and years since I've tasted a sunny-side-up egg, something I loved eating when I was a kid.
But if I were to learn it was okay to indulge after all, I'd happily do so.

I asked Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance for Eggland's Best, whether there was something about his company's eggs that made them impervious to salmonella contamination. Yes and no, he said. The company does have a strict quality control program aimed at ensuring that no contaminants creep into the eggs at any stage of the production process, he told me. On top of that, Eggland's Best vaccinates its hens against salmonella.

But that doesn't mean that by the time you get your eggs home and into the frying pan they're guaranteed to be contaminant-free. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires of all eggs, Eggland's Best eggs come in a carton that bears the following FDA "safe handling instructions":

"To prevent illness from bacteria, keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly."

That firm-yolks guideline, Slaugh says, is meant to ensure that even those with compromised immune systems and others who are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning (such as very young children and very old people) are protected.

The rest of us can safely eat a sunny-side-up egg, Slaugh says, provided it's cooked until the white is firm and the yolk has started to thicken. Those signs indicate that the egg's surface temperature has reached 165 degrees to 170 degrees, well above the 160 degrees deemed safe by the American Egg Board, he said.

I checked that out with Mark Kantor, an associate professor in the department of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland. Kantor wasn't sure about eyeballing an egg to gauge whether it's safe to eat. "I would be a little skeptical about judging the temperature you've reached just by the appearance of the egg," he said. The only way to know for sure would be to use a thermometer, which Kantor acknowledges is inconvenient and, when checking fried eggs, kind of tricky.

Still, the decision to eat a sunny-side-up egg is a matter of risk assessment, Kantor says. The vast majority of eggs in the U.S. are not contaminated with salmonella; only an estimated 1 in 10,000 is, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On top of that, he told me, while salmonella can indeed make you sick, it's a far less worrisome pathogen than, say, E. coli or listeria. Its symptoms are usually mild, he said, and people with healthy immune systems can usually handle an infection just fine.

So would Kantor eat a sunny-side-up egg? Sure, he said -- if he liked them. Turns out he prefers his eggs cooked till they're harder, anyway. But he would not allow his children, with their less-developed immune systems, to indulge. That risk, though small, is still too great for him.

Read more about egg safety here.

And do tell:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 5, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Safety and Recalls , Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  | Tags: Eggland's Best, egg nutrition, egg salmonella, is that right?, undercooked egg safety  
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Only reason I don't eat sunny-side-up eggs is that I don't like undercooked whites. Flip those puppies over for 10 seconds, and I'm as happy as a clam.

You can drive yourself crazy chasing a risk-free life -- and miss out on half the fun in the process. Seriously: meats have hormones and antibiotics and mad cow, dairy has hormones and antibiotics, fruits and veggies have pesticides and/or e coli, poultry has salmonella and antibiotics and possible mad cow (mad chicken?), fish has mercury, grains are genetically modified and have pesticides and jack up your blood sugar, etc. etc. etc. No matter where you turn, there is always, always a risk. Even if you go vegan and buy everything local and "natural," well, nature's original fertilizer (manure) is the primary source of e coli.

Personally, I love runny yolks, especially when mopped up by buttered toast. I also love blue cheese and -- best of all -- European cheeses made with (gasp!) unpasteurized milk. I'm also young and relatively healthy, so if I do get sick, it's not likely to have a significant long-term effect on my health. So for me, the upside pleasure outweighs the risk. YMMV.

Posted by: laura33 | February 5, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it time to take back our food. No more factory farms. Take care with slughter of meats. As I child I ate cookie dough and raw hamburger. Let's go back to real food and get rid of factory farms.

Posted by: mmad2 | February 5, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The author of this piece is just behaving irrationally towards eggs. Salmonella infected eggs are relatively rare and the bacteria almost always live in the white of the egg, reaching the yolk only if the egg is very old. Also, the amount of contamination in a single egg is rarely enough to cause illness. The bottom line is that eggs are a very nutritious and very safe food which are almost unprocessed straight from the hen's, um, posterior.

Posted by: menthe | February 5, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

mmad2, careful with the rose-colored glasses. We all ate raw cookie dough and undercooked hamburger back then, because we didn't know better -- not necessarily because it was "safe."

The primary source of food-borne illnesses is bacteria, which grow very happily in natural settings. My Granny, who grew up on a family farm, still will not eat meat that is not well-done or eggs that are not hard-fried -- that was a basic caution that was ingrained in her from birth. Which, btw, was the initial driver for a lot of the commercial fertilizers -- it was more "sanitary" because it allowed you to avoid using manure, and therefore lowered the risk of a sick cow contaminating your corn crop.

Those of us who grew up in the era of factory foods didn't get that same training; everything seemed safe and sanitary and regulated. And if we did get sick, it was a lot harder to track it to the cow that grandpa slaughtered last week; we figured it must have been the mayo on our bologna, or the tuna that was left out too long, some problem on our end. We lost that connection -- and along with it, any understanding of the real risks involved. It's only recently, with all of the national reporting and tracking of foods, that we've regained both the understanding of the risks and the ability to link a particular problem back to a particular food or farm.

I think the biggest problem with the factory foods is that they have the potential to spread the contamination more widely -- one bad acre of spinach or peanuts can go into a bunch of different products across the country, instead of just affecting the family who raised it, or the people they sold it to at market. But I don't know how much of that is perception vs. reality -- are rates really going up? Or do we just think they are, because they make the national news more than they used to?

Posted by: laura33 | February 5, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Here's an idea: quit eating eggs from sick, caged hens and you won't get sick. Buy your eggs and meat from reputable suppliers that take care of their flocks and herds.

Posted by: nicosiacyprus | February 5, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

There is a whole generation (millennium kiddies) out there that doesn't know how to cook an egg, much less change a tire, so maybe Darwin was correct.

There has to be something more important to write about.

Posted by: wesatch | February 5, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

By all means let's go back to the days before chemical fertilizers, hybrid crops, antibiotics, the internal-combustion engine and the steel plow. Then while half of the world's population starves off the rest of us can enjoy our safe, non-factory-farmed food. I take my eggs soft-boiled or poached. Do you really think you can live forever?

Posted by: ex-Virginian4 | February 5, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

how about a fifth option on the little user poll for "i don't eat eggs of any kind ever. they're gross, terrible for you, terrible for the hens, and not necessary for nutrition."

Posted by: anniesang | February 5, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I guess I've been living under a rock, because I didn't know about the sunny-side-up thing. I like my eggs over-medium, still with a fair amount of runny yolk, and have been eating them that way my whole life.

Now, I eat my burgers and all other animal and (fish) protein medium well. I don't want to see pink and I want it cooked all of the way through.

Posted by: jn22 | February 5, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

More than 30% of the population is immune compromised.

At 170 degrees, the yolk is not runny.

Posted by: bbb120 | February 5, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Salmonella is a naturally-occurring bacteria that you can't effectively vaccinate against.

Salmonella does not make chickens sick. It lives naturally in their intestines and can migrate to their ovaries where it is passed into the egg before the shell is formed.

You can get pasteurized in the shell eggs. They use warm water to kill bacteria without cooking the eggs.

Posted by: bbb120 | February 5, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

There are a lot of hungry people in this world who would love to have this problem.

Posted by: di89 | February 5, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

You all would love my holiday egg nog which I have been drinking for 62 years and making for 55 years. The recipe starts with one dozen raw eggs.

Posted by: dwbarker1 | February 5, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

An egg is one of the most nutritious food items in our diet. It is rich in minerals, proteins, amino acids and vitamins, all of which are easily absorbed by the body.

I consume raw eggs in fruit smoothies almost everyday and have never gotten sick from eggs. In many countries they don't even bother refrigerating eggs.

It is far more dangerous to drink soft drinks that contain High Fructose Corn Syrup or use your cell phone more than an hour per day.

Posted by: alance | February 5, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

There was a day when Americans didn't fear eggs or meat or veggies all that much. Nor, having defeated serious enemies like the Nazis and Imperial Japan, would we have been so terrified by the current scruffy crop of terrorists.

What happened to us?

Posted by: TexLex | February 5, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Reply to dwbarker1...
Yum, real eggnog! Sounds like a perfect match for the "Great Blizzard of Ought-Ten" - thanks for the idea!

Posted by: ProfessorPeabody | February 5, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

So Ms. Huget's kid got sick from a pet salamander and because of that anecdote the rest of us are supposed to be scared of our occasional chicken eggs. Wonderful how illogicial silliness occupies so much of our lives.
Let me exchange anecdote for anecdote, although we all know that the plural of anecdote is not data for epidemiological or clinical purposes. At 62, I have eaten for at least four full decades: sunny-side up eggs, rare beef, slightly but only slightly pink pork, barely not-pink chicken, medium-rare duck and goose, dozens of raw oysters at a sitting, and sushi and sashimi. Literally, my only food-borne illnesses seem to have been from raw quail eggs at a US sushi restaurant and some outliers in three dozen oysters unwisely consumed just minutes before boarding an airliner.
If you are immune compromised, by all means eat exceedingly carefully. A friend who had had a bone marrow transplant ate only fried foods at the insistence of his City of Hope physicians, but the underlying disease got him anyway.

Posted by: clsvail | February 5, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

We are fortunate to get our eggs from a friend who raises chickens - we trust the health of his chickens and enjoy our eggs over easy often.

The story reminds me of the time I rolled into a hotel in LA and was very, very hungry. I went down to the bar and ordered a dry martini (up) and a rare cheeseburg. The bartender said that it was against California law to serve anything less than medium-well. I suggested his tip would be larger if he managed to get so busy that he served my burger without checking the doneness. He winked and I felt like I'd just scored a drug deal.

He made a good cheeseburger and a great dry martini. I survived both.

Are we willing to pay for healthy meat and eggs? I am, but I also recognize that the same factories that make sick chickens also make it possible for poorer folks to eat quality protein at a lower cost (as long as they cook it safely). Which is better?

Posted by: drmary | February 6, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

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