We have all seen the warning labels on food products, the disclaimers in menus, and been told by our parents to NEVER eat raw eggs. So why is eating raw eggs seen as such a hazard in everyday life?
Why Do I Care?
I grew up in a house where we used raw eggs in food all the time, and my mom never even mentioned salmonella risks. My favorite banana cream pie recipe has two raw egg yolks, as does my favorite snack food (cookie dough), and multiple other recipes I grew up with and make myself. I'd never even considered that salmonella might be a risk when eating raw eggs in food, until a teacher in primary school told us a horror story that ended up with a person in the hospital from eating cookie dough. When I came home from school upset and told my mom, she scoffed and said it was "utter nonsense." And you know what? It is utter nonsense. And now I'm going to prove it to you.
So my question is, where does this fear of eating raw eggs come from? Is it limited to America? What is it about our food handling process and collective culture that has built up a fear of raw eggs to near phobic proportions?
I'm a science major, so I decided to do a little research. Unfortunately, this phobia of getting salmonella from eggs extends even to the CDC, so I had to search for a bit to find anything non-biased and accurate, but eventually I got there.
So What Actually Is Salmonella?
Lets start with what salmonella actually is and what it does if you do come in contact with it. According to the CDC, salmonella is a bacteria that can cause "acute gastroenteritis", which has the symptoms of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and nausea. These symptoms usually last for 5-7 days before dissipating. However, in some at risk people (young children younger than 5 years, older people over 65, and people with compromised immune systems) it can cause more severe symptoms. Only about 8% of those that contract salmonella infections face dangerous or life-threatening symptoms, and even these are rarely fatal.
While most salmonella cases resolve on their own as our immune system obliterates the bacteria, in some cases a quick dose of antibiotics takes care of the bacteria. This bacteria lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, and is most commonly contracted by eating contaminated food and drink, or touching animals and not washing your hands afterwards (i.e. body fluids like saliva from the lick of an animal with salmonella). In fact, it seems that turtles and other reptiles are most likely to carry the bacteria, followed by birds. So are you afraid of playing with your roommate's tortoise or stroking a friendly parrot? Of course not. You haven't been taught from birth to see them as a source of salmonella.
The real kicker here is that it's not only animal products like meat and eggs that could contain salmonella, but fruits, vegetables, and even processed foods. So really any food could end up giving you salmonella, and eating raw eggs really isn't the hazard it's made out to be. You could just as easily get salmonella from munching on a stick of raw celery.
In fact, food poisoning is actually caused by contracting salmonella. People get food poisoning from all sorts of things: chicken, cucumber, tuna, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and even peanut butter. Even processed foods like frozen chicken pot pies could be your downfall. Food poisoning is not a fun experience, but it's rarely life threatening.
While it is true that eggs can be contaminated by salmonella, if everything else you eat can as well, why are we so concerned about just the eggs?
Salmonella In The U.S. vs. Europe
Here's the thing about eggs in the U.S.; we put them through a chemical bath. This process does get rid of anything that may be on the outside of the shell from it's place of origin - i.e. a chicken's butt. However, those chemicals remove an invisible layer of protection around the outside of the shell that provides a barrier to prevent bacteria entering the egg. Crazy, right? We purposely remove a protective layer because we're scared of some feathers.
So bacteria can get through the shell to the insides. But wait, egg whites don't contain any protein or sugars, so bacteria cannot replicate in it. That's right, egg whites won't contain bacteria, because it cannot survive in it. The yolks of the egg (which do contain protein and sugars) are safely surrounded by the whites. I know how safely they are surrounded by the whites, because whenever I have to separate yolks from whites for baking, it's irritatingly difficult to get all the whites off. So unless the bacteria is purposely injected into the yolks or got there while forming inside the chicken, it's highly unlikely that you're going to find salmonella on the inside of the egg. Currently, it's estimated that 1 in 20,000 eggs contain salmonella. I don't know about you, but I'm willing to take that chance.
In Europe, the instance of salmonella in humans is far lower than in the U.S. Among many other differences in food handling, they don't put their eggs through a chemical bath. They don't destroy the egg's protective layer just so it looks pretty. They wash them in water, but not chemicals. Because we in the U.S. don't have that protective layer, we must store eggs in fridges where it's too cold for bacteria to grow easily. In Europe, they commonly store eggs at room temperature and are none the worse for it.
What Can You Do To Be Even Safer With Eggs?
The fresher the egg, the safer it is to eat raw. You should buy organic and local. Those eggs are far fresher than eggs that are shipped hundreds of miles to your grocery store. Also, local chicken owners are more likely to vaccinate their chickens against things like salmonella. They also don't bathe their eggs in chemicals, they just wash them under water. So if you buy organic eggs from free-range hens from a local farmers market or a small farm, chances are the chickens are healthier, the eggs are bacteria free, and you are supporting local people rather than a big corporation.
Still Scared of Eggs?
Here's a basic rundown of the issues to summarize: 1) Most instances of salmonella are uncomfortable, but not life-threatening, 2) Food poisoning is the same thing as salmonella – not fun but not usually fatal, 3) You can just as easily get salmonella by eating celery as you can eating eggs, 4) The way the USDA "sterilizes" eggs in the U.S. is actually more likely to cause bacteria issues, and finally, 5) It's safer to buy fresh foods from local and organic sources.
The moral of this story is that raw eggs are not your enemies, you can eat cookie dough to your heart's content, and you should definitely make awesome no-bake pies without worry.