Are you a fussy egg handler, quickly washing your hands after touching raw eggs and never, never licking batter from a spoon or bowl if a raw egg has been mixed with it (for fear of salmonella)?
In terms of health risk, and in the grand scheme of things, you’re probably overreacting. Slate editor L.V. Anderson, who estimates she has consumed over 300 raw eggs in her lifetime, explains:
[E]gg producers have succeeded at reducing the rate of salmonella infection in egg-laying hens since the early 1990s. But there are other reasons salmonella infection is uncommon. Infected hens don’t always lay infected eggs—only rarely does the salmonella bacteria enter a hen’s ovaries and, consequently, its eggs. Using data from the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 20,000 eggs is internally contaminated with salmonella. Since salmonella prevention practices have improved since then, the egg contamination rate is probably even lower now—indeed, according to Patterson, in Pennsylvania only 0.012 percent of eggs from salmonella-infected flocks are contaminated. That in and of itself probably explains why I’ve never gotten salmonella from raw eggs. (The fear that eggshells might be infected with salmonella even if the inside of the eggs isn’t is unfounded: The FDA requires rigorous egg cleaning, which means that any salmonella that might be on the shell of an egg—from infected hens’ fecal matter, for instance—is killed before the egg reaches a consumer.)
But let’s say an infected egg does make it into a consumer’s kitchen. If the egg is kept at or below a temperature of 45 degrees, the salmonella bacteria will have no opportunity to grow. (Most salmonella outbreaks are linked to restaurant settings, where large quantities of eggs are commonly mixed together and kept at unsafe temperatures—practices Patterson calls “egg abuse”—thereby giving bacteria a chance to spread from one egg to another.) If the amount of bacteria in the egg remains relatively small, it’s perfectly conceivable that a spoon-licker like myself would simply miss the infected portion of the egg, which would end up getting killed in the oven or washed down the sink.
Finally, even if that bacteria does end up in your mouth and stomach, it might not make you sick. “Salmonella, like a lot of food-borne bacteria, are what we think of as opportunistic organisms, in that they really don’t compete very well with a lot of other bacteria and microbes that are not only in nature, but also are in the human intestinal system,” says David McSwane, a retired public health professor at Indiana University and the co-author of Essentials of Food Safety and Sanitation. In other words, salmonella bacteria fare really well inside a room-temperature egg, where they have all the nutrients they could possibly want to feast on. But they don’t do so well in a healthy human intestinal tract, where they have to compete with thousands of other bacteria for nutrients. If you’re a reasonably healthy adult, like me, you could probably depend on your microbiome to out-compete small quantities of SE and to prevent you from getting sick.
Naturally, if you consume a large enough quantity of salmonella, not even your vigorous gut bacteria will save you from illness. And if you’re a child, elderly, pregnant, HIV-positive, or on chemotherapy—or facing some other immune-compromising medical situation—you could get sick from consuming just a small quantity of SE. Everyone’s threshold is different, […]
Translation: Relax. Nobody gets out alive (37,000 people die, for example, in motor vehicle accidents in the United States every year). Something is going to kill you someday, but your death certificate is probably not going say, “Killed by a raw egg.”
And I’d like to bring up the magical thinking at work in overcautious people (like me). The unspoken attitude is, “Stupid and uncareful people die from x or y, not people like me. Because I do x, and a lot of people don’t, I’m a superior person, a survivor.”
Let me tell you something (and I’m talking to myself as well). Everybody dies. Everybody. You’re not going to finesse or negotiate your way out of this. You’re heading down into Sheol exactly like everybody else. Insert happy face emoticon of your choosing here.