Are Fussy Egg Handlers Rational?

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Are Fussy Egg Handlers Rational?

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Hmm, I am ambivalent to this. One school of thought attributes improved longevity to the sum of all our careful behaviours. Another school of thought advises that we should challenge our immune system with moderate exposure to pathogens, that this strengthens our immune system. I tend to the latter point of view.

    Which brings up another subject. I don’t think longevity is of itself necessarily a good goal. More important, I think are the number of disability free years we enjoy. The best known method of maintaining good health and improving the number of disability free years is endurance running. One study showed that running only improved longevity by between two and three years but that it increased disability free years by about six to eight years.

    I am not going to worry about eggs, hygiene or mortality, I am just going to run more. It will probably mean that I better enjoy my remaining years.
    See Postponed development of disability in elderly runners: a 13-year longitudinal study

    Results: Significantly (P<.001) lower disability levels in runners' club members vs controls and in ever runners vs never runners were sustained for at least 13 years. Reaching a Health Assessment Questionnaire disability level of 0.075 was postponed by 8.7 (95% confidence interval [CI], 5.5-13.7) years in runners' club members vs controls. Running club membership and participation in other aerobic exercise protected against mortality (rate ratio, 0.36 [95% CI, 0.20-0.65] and 0.88 [95% CI, 0.77-0.99], respectively), while male sex and smoking were detrimental (rate ratio, 2.4 [95% CI, 1.4-4.2] and 2.2 [95% CI, 1.1-4.6], respectively). Controls had a 3.3 times higher rate of death than runners' club members, with higher death rates in every disease category. Accelerated rates of disability and mortality were still not seen in the runners' club members; true compression of morbidity was not yet observable through an average age of 72 years.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I think you’re certainly right about running–but also remember Jonah (you can’t run from God). : )

      And one reason I think running is a key aspect to health is that we evolved doing it. I think you’ve seen this post on our skin functioning as a giant tongue (see link below). In any event, long distance running has long been a key element to humans’ evolutionary survival strategy.

      • Peter Smith says:

        That is a fascinating post and I completely agree with it, except in one respect. The impetus behind the development of fire was probably primarily our nakedness. To stay warm at night without clothing required us to develop fire.

        Once, on a two week mountain ridge walk, I was forced to take refuge in a cave for several days during heavy, persistent rain. I stripped naked to let my clothes dry. I was forced out into the rain, many times, to collect firewood so that I could keep a fire burning and stay warm in my naked state, especially at night when it cooled down. I also discovered that a naked man could not go far in bushy conditions. Our thin hairless skin is too vulnerable.

        As you pointed out, we evolved as persistence hunters, running our prey to exhaustion under hot conditions. I discovered this while trail running with my dogs. At roughly the three to three and a half hour mark I would find my dogs tired markedly and they started to drop behind me. Their cooling capacity is limited by the size of their tongues while my cooling capacity is limited by the size of my entire body. They were faster than me but could not endure as long as I did, provided it was hot. My best dog had the largest tongue.

        One month ago I performed an interesting experiment. I wanted to see how long I could run without drinking any fluid, a key requirement for persistence hunting. At a temperature that was never below 30 deg C I ran for five hours on a rocky trail, drinking no fluid. At the end I suffered the extremes of thirst but I had demonstrated that extended persistence hunting was possible. And there were no adverse after effects, I recovered quickly.

        Two years ago I performed another interesting experiment. Could I keep running even if very hungry? For four and a half days I ate nothing and also ran 20 km every day. The answer was yes, I could, and I did not become unduly weakened. This was presumably because I had adequate stores of body fat. The reason for the half day was that my willpower ran out when I opened my fridge door, I was suffering from real hunger. The experiment was intended to run for five days. The persistence hunter can’t depend on catching game regularly so must be able to run and hunt even if very hungry. I think my experiment proved the point.

        I’m surprised you haven’t worked out the implications of all of this for the Genesis story!

      • Peter Smith says:

        you can’t run from God
        I am looking forward to the meeting even though the path to that meeting can be problematic. See
        A Storm of Bees
        The Ninja of Waterkloof

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