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Who’s Afraid of Raw Egg?

There is a bit of lore about eggs that is misleading. For example, did you know that the only difference between white eggs and brown eggs is the color of the shell? Did you know that the small blood veins in the yolks of organic eggs are harmless? Did you know eating a raw egg presents less heath risk than consuming hamburger cooked from ground beef patties from the supermarket?

Raw eggs in particular got a bad rap. In the 1990s we suddenly were cautioned about eating real mayonnaise or Caesar salad or downing a prairie oyster. Eggs appeared endangered when some alarmist and irresponsible food and nutritional journalism suggested raw eggs carried a high risk of food-borne illness. I delved into the research on raw eggs at the time because, as a cookbook author, I faced concerned editors who insisted I address the egg-safety issue. I learned that the chance of getting a food-borne illness from raw eggs is very low and statistically nil. It is about the same as for spinach or any food that is mishandled.

Salmonella is found mostly in egg whites and to a lesser extent the yolk — but it’s exceedingly rare. A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that of the 69 billion eggs produced annually, only 2.3 million are contaminated with salmonella. That’s .003 percent of eggs, or 1 in every 30,000 raw eggs.

The average consumer might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. Moreover, if you have a healthy constitution, salmonella at most will make you feel a little sick, a condition that will pass in a few hours to a day. Cases of salmonella that result in serious illness or death are very, very rare.

Furthermore, the eggs most likely to carry salmonella come from industrially raised, that is, conventionally raised, chickens. Only sick chickens lay salmonella-contaminated eggs. Cook with organic eggs and the risk virtually disappears.

However, once you buy freshly laid organic eggs you will probably never again buy supermarket eggs. The taste is just better. There is nothing wrong with supermarket eggs, mind you, but I tend to use them more for mixes than for egg dishes. Eggs should be stored in the refrigerator.

My conclusion: There is no reason to fear the raw egg in real mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad, eggnog, pisco sours or a “Rocky”-like breakfast egg shake. One proviso: Individuals with particular heath problems, such as high cholesterol, should limit their intake of eggs. All should consult doctors about individual nutritional needs. However, if you can eat anything, then by all means eat raw eggs. How about a prairie oyster? Take one large organic egg, separate the yolk from the white into a spoon. Squeeze a few drops of fresh lemon juice on top, season with salt and pepper and let it slide down your gullet.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).