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Presents for Hungry Times : Eggs: A Season for Caution


Two separate outbreaks of salmonellosis in Los Angeles County in the past year have been linked to contaminated raw eggs, according to an investigation by local health officials.

The timing of the report, which appeared in the current issue of the county's Public Health Letter, is significant because raw and lightly cooked eggs are often consumed during the holidays--in eggnog drinks, sauces and desserts.

A particular strain of bacteria-- Salmonella enteritidis-- was isolated from the food poisoning victims in both episodes. None of the infections resulted in fatalities, but at least nine people were hospitalized.

S. enteritidis, widely associated with raw or undercooked eggs, has been rapidly increasing in recent years. However, most of the cases have been in the Eastern United States, where federal officials have been unable to eliminate the presence of the contaminant from the region's egg-laying flocks. The problem is intractable because the yolk becomes infected before a shell is even formed in the bird's ova duct. This means an otherwise clean, uncracked egg may harbor the S. enteritidis without any outward signs.

Despite the outbreaks, industry representatives maintain that California's record in this area is exemplary and that no S. enteritidis infections have resulted from eggs produced in this state.

"To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a Salmonella enteritidis outbreak linked to California fresh eggs, and I hold that position now as well," said Robert Pierre, president of the California Egg Commission in Upland.

Thirty-six people became ill, and nine were hospitalized, in the first L.A. County outbreak because cake frosting, prepared by a commercial bakery, was suspected of harboring S. enteritidis. Cakes with the suspect frosting were consumed by 95% of those reporting the illness, an extremely high infection rate.

No product recall was initiated because county health officials did not identify probable causes of contamination until weeks after the illnesses first appeared. Infections had also subsided in the interim. And during an inspection, the contaminant was not found in the bakery (the name of which was not released) or among its workers.

Several unsanitary manufacturing practices were identified at the facility and considered the probable contamination source. The company was ordered by health inspectors to correct the deficiencies.

According to county investigators, "The most likely vehicle for this S. enteritidis outbreak was contaminated non-dairy whipped cream. This product could have been cross-contaminated by use of improperly cleaned utensils, bowls and/or machines used to prepare the whipped cream frosting (after these same items prepared) batter that contained the fresh, raw eggs." (Bacteria that may have been present in the batter were destroyed during the baking process. The frosting was not baked or sufficiently heated.)

The second, more recent, case involved 29 illnesses at a halfway home for boys where a banana pudding was the implicated dish. Again, poor handling practices were cited.

"The pudding may have been cross-contaminated by a large mixing bowl used first to scramble manually cracked fresh Grade AA eggs, which were pooled and stored overnight in the refrigerator, and then to prepare the instant pudding mixture later that morning," according to the county report of the incident.

The county's Public Health Letter reported that "California-produced fresh whole eggs" were being used by the commercial bakery during the first outbreak. In the halfway house, a combination of California and out-of-state eggs were used.

Shirley L. Fannin MD, the county's director of disease control programs, said that the eggs' origin should not have been mentioned in the final report because their source could not be stated "absolutely." In order for health officials to have made a definitive link, an extensive trace of product and suppliers would be required, and that was not done after either outbreak.

The lack of this so-called trace is the reason California egg industry representatives continue to maintain that their products are without fault.

"One instance of improper food handling at any of the 69,000 food service establishments in California or by one of their 785,000 employees could create havoc whether eggs are innocent or not," the egg commission's Pierre said. "For example, the bakery in South Los Angeles County had been practicing bad food safety procedures and eggs were not implicated in that outbreak. In the boys' home, the handlers did not properly wash a mixer, and that (episode) couldn't be traced back to eggs."

Pierre said his group is spending substantial time and money to help educate the food service industry and consumers to do a better job of handling eggs.

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