You probably know to wash your hands after handling raw chicken, but what about after cracking an egg?
Less than half of adults, only 48 percent, wash their hands with soap and water after cracking eggs, and over 25 percent eat cookie dough or cake batter containing raw eggs, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Food Protection. Both activities put a person at serious risk for food poisoning.
“It’s shocking,” says lead author Katherine Kosa, a research analyst in food and nutrition policy at RTI International, a nonprofit research organization based in North Carolina. In an earlier study, her team found that 98 percent of people wash their hands after handling raw poultry, but somehow that same logic hasn’t extended to eggs, she says.
Exposure to raw eggs puts individuals at risk of infection from salmonella, a bacterium that can be found on both the outside and inside of eggs. Salmonella doesn’t make the egg-laying hens sick, but in humans it can lead to abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever.
Salmonella causes an estimated 1 million foodborne infections each year, and eggs are the leading culprit. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of foodborne disease outbreaks from 1998-2008, salmonella infections result in the most hospitalizations and deaths of any foodborne disease.
“The majority of these illnesses could be reduced if consumers had better food safety practices,” says Kosa.
She and collaborators surveyed 1,504 US grocery shoppers about their food-handling habits. The researchers were happy to find that 99 percent of people purchased refrigerated eggs and kept them refrigerated. Keeping eggs adequately cool prevents any salmonella present in the eggs from growing to dangerous levels.
Yet the lack of hand washing after handling eggs is an area of concern, says Kosa. It doesn’t matter if there is no slimy egg white or yolk on your hands, she says. The bacteria are invisible to the naked eye and can still be transferred.
There was one other conclusion that will be hard to swallow for those who like their eggs over easy: Over half of those surveyed said they eat eggs with soft or runny yolks or whites, yet the USDA advises consumers to avoid undercooked eggs. That is especially important for infants, young children, adults over 65, and pregnant women, who are most vulnerable to salmonella infection.