Should the law require all eggs to be pasteurised?
Our guest columnist Meg Parkinson is past President of the Victorian Farmers Federation Egg Group
FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants
© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, May 2014
Television chefs and the ‘fresh’ and ‘raw’ food promotions in cafes and the popular media have led to an upsurge in fresh farm eggs being used by home cooks and restaurants in raw foods. Many food businesses and consumers are unaware of the added food safety risks posed by unpasteurised eggs. In this article, guest columnist Meg Parkinson, past President of the Victorian Farmers Federation Egg Group, discusses some of the concerns arising though the increasing trend of raw egg products, and what consumers can do to prevent food safety problems.
Safe eggs are thoroughly cooked
Australians think that the food they buy is safe for themselves and their families to eat – so safe they believe that they do not even need to consider food safety when they think about buying food. That is a sentiment that Victorian Egg farmers would like to agree with. Egg producers work very hard to ensure that the eggs being sold are safe – whether they are eaten in the home or in restaurants or cafes.
An egg is a parcel of nutrition just waiting to be released. It contains many nutrients, is easy to prepare and reasonably priced. All it takes is a bit of knowledge on how to handle eggs in the best way to get all the benefits of eating eggs including the pleasure of delicious desserts.
So why have people been getting sick?
When one looks at the data, it is clear to the egg industry that more people are getting sick because they are being encouraged to eat foods made from raw or partly cooked eggs or from raw eggs being allowed to sit on a bench or table or not being properly refrigerated.
A table prepared by Past-Professor Doug Powell shows the patterns of egg-related food safety issues since 1991. Around 24% of the items in the table state that the cause was only “suspected” to be eggs. This could be for a number of possible reasons, especially due to the difficulties in establishing the cause of such illness: People may not remember exactly what they have eaten or where they purchased products.
Of the remaining 76%, only 3% stated that the dishes were cooked. Of the remaining 73%, around 4.8% involved ‘undercooked’ eggs; and another 4.8% just stated “eggs” – and some of these eggs were duck eggs not hens’ eggs; but the information does not clarify whether they were raw eggs or not. That leaves 63.4% of the food related items in the table occurring from the use of raw eggs, 68% if we add in undercooked eggs.
What is clear from the table is that in the vast majority of egg-related food safety issues, where the cause could be established, the problem has been caused by the use of raw or undercooked eggs.
One of the reasons attributed to the rising popularity of raw egg consumption is the usage of the product in television shows. The chefs in various TV programs are not just competing to produce the best meal but are pushing the barrow to get noticed and to win. They come up with different dishes which they hope will be tasty and original. Some of the dishes which have been prepared in these programs over the years are not necessarily dishes that the egg industry would recommend being made with unpasteurised egg. Aioli is a classic example.
Aioli and mayonnaise are often made with raw eggs. They should be served straight away after being made. If you are planning a meal that will leave the product sitting around, use only a pasteurised egg.
Pasteurised eggs can be found in the supermarkets and in the frozen foods section and are becoming more common in the milk cabinet. If your supermarket does not stock pasteurised eggs, you ought to complain.
If you are a chef and need large quantities of pasteurised egg, your current egg supplier should either be able to supply the egg or tell you where you can get it.
Approaches by the egg industry to reduce problems
In 2011, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) worked with the Victorian Department of Health and the Department of Primary Industry to produce brochures which explained how to handle eggs to home cooks, caterers and others in the supply chain. These were published by the Department of Health. The brochures aimed to convey the information in a clear way in plain English. Examples can be seen on the Department of Health’s website.
The VFF Egg Group has had a stand at the Royal Melbourne Show to talk about the egg industry. One of the things the egg industry has done is to answer questions and give out brochures about food safety. In fact, at last year’s Show, food safety was the most discussed topic – especially by young mothers. They tell us that they have never been taught how to handle eggs.
Further action by the VFF
As good as all this is, the egg industry wants to do more to alert food businesses and food consumers to the risks of unpasteurised eggs.
The egg industry is very convinced that the main cause of egg-related food borne illnesses is due to raw or undercooked eggs, or dishes containing them, being left to sit around without refrigeration. This is reinforced by the fact that very few of the incidents show the phage type of the Salmonella found on the farm where products are checked by government regulators.
Both the VFF Egg Group and Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA) run quality assurance programs under certified trademarks. The VFF Egg Group has HenCare and FREPA has RangeCare. Both include food safety requirements to be audited by third party auditors who are RABQSA accredited.
These audit programs are very important and farm producers put a lot of work into monitoring and updating their audit programs.
It is the egg producers’ position that:
Eggs must be thoroughly cooked. Pasteurised eggs should be used in food that is not fully cooked.
We want every home cook and restaurant chef to minimize the risks of using any animal protein, in this case eggs, in a raw or undercooked state. Eggs should be treated like meat or chicken. Cook eggs thoroughly. If you make raw egg dishes, only use pasteurised egg.
It also should go without saying that the basic rules of food hygiene should be followed when using eggs. These include: wash your hands, keep your bench hygienic and clean, and in the home keep your animals out of the kitchen.
Doing these simple things and using pasteurised egg for raw dishes, will mean you can still eat your fill of delicious desserts and mayonnaises.
Further comments by FoodLegal’s Managing Principal Joe Lederman:
1. A March 2014 FoodLegal Bulletin article “’Raw’ food trends and the Law of ‘Raw’” explored the rising popularity of “raw” products in food marketing.
2. A 2009 scientific assessment by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) on the health and safety risks of consuming eggs and egg products noted the potential risk of illness that comes from consuming raw or “lightly cooked” eggs, or from consuming uncooked food products containing raw eggs.
3. Standard 4.2.5 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Food Standards Code) requires that all “egg products” are pasteurised. An “egg product” is defined in Standard 1.1.1 as the contents of an egg in any form, including egg pulp, liquid egg white, and liquid egg yolk.
4. Standard 2.2.2 prohibits the sale of “unacceptable eggs” for catering or retail sale purposes. “Unacceptable egg” is defined in the Food Standards Code as a cracked, broken or dirty egg. However, whole eggs do not need to be pasteurised prior to sale, meaning the unpasteurised product is easily accessible and commonly used.
5. An unpasteurised egg, once cracked open, can easily grow bacteria such as Salmonella. The food safety weakness in the law is a lack of regulation in Australia preventing the use of raw unpasteurised eggs in the preparation of uncooked products for consumption.
6. While guides are available online to explain how people can pasteurise their own eggs, attempting to do so requires precision and care. For example, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service notes the difficulty in pasteurising shell eggs at home without accidently cooking the product. If requirements of temperature and time are not met, the product will remain unsafe to eat. If they are exceeded, the eggs will cook, resulting in wasted produce.
7. The fact that pasteurised eggs are publicly available ought to be sufficient reason to use only pasteurised eggs. Of course, the normal food safety hygiene and cleanliness practices should also be followed by home cooks and restaurants in eggs as with any other protein-based foods.
This is general information rather than legal advice and is current as of 14 May 2014. We therefore recommend you seek legal advice for your particular circumstances if you want to rely on advice or information to be a basis for any commercial decision-making by you or your business.