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How Eggs are Inspected for Salmonella in the United States

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Updated February 07, 2014

An egg Marcello U.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (a federal agency) is responsible for inspecting eggs and egg products. All facilities involved in the packaging, storing and shipping of raw shell eggs must be inspected at least one time every year.

Some states also have their own food inspection agencies, which typically have similar requirements.

Regulations for the Production, Shipping and selling of Eggs and Egg Products

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires large-scale egg producers to buy chicks and young hens that are free from Salmonella. The produces must also establish rodent and pest control measures because Salmonella may spread through infestation of mice or rats.

The buildings that house the chickens must be periodically tested for Salmonella, and disinfection procedures are required when Salmonella is found.

Eggs must also be refrigerated within 36 hours after laying to retard bacterial growth and spoilage. These requirements don't pertain to small egg farms (fewer than 3000 hens) that sell eggs directly to consumers.

The shells of eggs may be contaminated with salmonella, a type of bacteria that can result in a foodborne illness called salmonellosis. When you crack the shells, the bacteria might contaminate the egg inside.

Salmonellosis from Raw Eggs 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), salmonellosis is the most common form of foodborne illness. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever that can appear from 8 to 72 hours after ingesting the bacteria. The symptoms typically last 4 to 7 days, however salmonellosis can be life threatening for infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Unfortunately, you can't see or smell Salmonella bacteria on eggshells so it's important to always practice good food safety when handling raw eggs.

Egg products are eggs that have removed from the shell and processed into liquid, frozen or dried form. They may be sold in that form or used as ingredients in other processed foods. All egg products must be pasteurized in order to kill microbes such as salmonella. Raw eggs don't necessarily undergo any type of pasteurization, but it is possible that may become a requirement in the future.

When Foodborne Outbreaks Occur

Despite the best intentions of the federal and state government agencies that handle egg inspection, there are times when foodborne outbreaks from eggs occur.

When these outbreaks are reported in the United States, the CDC joins the FDA and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in searching for the sources of the infection and taking steps to stop the spread of the outbreak. This includes issuing food recalls and potentially shutting down the facilities that produced the contaminated eggs and egg products.

Egg Safety at Home

Since Salmonella is the most common foodborne illness-producing bacteria, it's important to follow egg safety, even when there are no reported incidences of salmonellosis. Treat all the eggs you buy as if they are contaminated and follow these basic egg safety rules:

  • Choose raw eggs in the grocery store that are refrigerated.
  • Open the carton and inspect the eggs -- they should have clean shells with no cracks.
  • Refrigerate them as soon as you get home.
  • Make sure all utensils and cooking surfaces are clean.
  • Cook eggs until both yolk and white are firm, don't serve runny eggs.
  • Any food prepared with eggs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Don't consume uncooked foods that contain raw eggs, such as home-made cookie dough and cake batter.
  • Cooked food should be kept warm (above 140 degrees) or cold (below 40 degrees)
Some consumers prefer to buy their eggs directly from small local farmers, however the FDA egg safety requirements don't apply to farms with fewer than 3000 hens. While it may be easier to keep smaller facilities disease-free, Salmonella contamination can happen at any farm (regular or organic), so if you buy eggs from the farm, be sure that the farmers refrigerate their eggs, keep their facilities pest-controlled and clean, and care for the chickens properly.

Sources:

United States Department of Agriculture. "Egg Products and Food Safety." Accessed August 26, 2010. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Egg_Products_and_Food_Safety/index.asp.

United States Department of Agriculture. "Salmonella Questions and Answers." Accessed August 27, 2010. http://origin-www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Salmonella_Questions_&_Answers/index.asp.

United States Food and Drug Administration. "Egg Safety Final Rule." Accessed August 27, 2010. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product-SpecificInformation/EggSafety/EggSafetyActionPlan/ucm170615.

United States Food and Drug Administration. "Playing It Safe With Eggs." Accessed August 26, 2010. http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm077342.htm.

 

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