Salmonella in eggs: public relations pros suck at PR

A summary of egg-talk, almost one month into the salmonella-in-half-a-billion-egg recall that has sickened at least 1,500.

Risk comparisons are risky

The Iowa egg folks wrote at the beginning of the outbreak in mid-Aug. that “the chance of an egg containing Salmonella Enteritidis is rare in the U.S. Several years ago, it was estimated that 1 in 20,000 eggs might have been contaminated, which meant most consumers probably wouldn’t come in contact with such an egg but 1 time in 84 years.”

Some industry-apologist lawyer wrote, “you and I are ten times more likely to die in an auto accident this year than to culture positive for SE as a result of eating eggs (which averages about 1 in 120,000 annually).”

These may be statistically accurate, but are of no comfort to those barfing. The American Egg Board estimates the risk of an egg being contaminated with salmonella at about 1 in 20,000. Holding my nose at one end and something else at the other and assuming such an estimate is accurate (and it’s a pooled estimate so is widely variable), if I make mayo or egg nog or dip into the pancake batter, I’ve upped the risk to 5-6 out of 20,000. If a restaurant is making mayo or aioli, dozens if not hundreds or thousands of eggs could be used, cross-contaminating the kitchen area and potentially sickening lots of people daily.

There’s a different risk exposure dealing with a few eggs at home and the thousands used daily in food service. Risk gets amplified real easy.

Simple messages aren’t simple

More than one misguided commenter has said, here are the facts – just cook your eggs.

Just cook it is an ineffective risk slogan, like, don’t do drugs, employees must wash hands, and, we don’t swim in your toilet so please don’t pee in our pool.

“If you are concerned, just make sure you cook your eggs to well done. If you have someone that is ill or on immunosuppressive medication, you should do this regardless of the source of eggs. In the meantime, my local stores don’t sell eggs with any of the recalled labels, so I had mine over easy this morning.”

I don’t have those special salmonella-vision goggles, and worry more about cross-contamination with those ubiquitous egg juices.

After FDA found piles of crap in Iowa farms linked to the salmonella outbreak, the Iowa Poultry Association said in a statement, the “Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both state that thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs. Consumers should know that salmonella is destroyed by the heat of proper cooking. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm. For dishes containing eggs, the internal temperature should reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Again, nothing about cross-contamination, which we know happens routinely based on hundreds of hours of video observation from food service kitchens.

Jennifer Perry, a post-doctoral researcher at Ohio State University had it more correct:

“Eggs are a raw product. Although it is rare to find Salmonella inside the egg, research conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists has demonstrated that the pathogen may be present on the exterior of about 8 percent of shell eggs, yet people treat them as if they’re sterile. They wouldn’t handle raw chicken breast the way they handle eggs, but they probably should treat the products about the same.”

Industry and government suck at communication …

… and are apparently terrified to go public with information that could prevent others from getting sick. They also don’t seem to care about the trust lost when people find out information was available that could prevent others from barfing.

State and federal health agencies identified an Iowa egg company as a likely source of illness at least two weeks before the firm launched a massive egg recall Aug. 13, 2010, and the public got its first hint of a growing national salmonella outbreak.

CDC announced on Aug. 16, 2010, a four-fold increase over the expected number of reported isolates of this particular SE PFGE pattern.

But it wasn’t until Elizabeth Weise of USA Today put the numbers into context – 228 million eggs recalled, an increase from the normal 50 salmonella cases per week to 200 in June — on Aug. 18, 2010, that the story began to garner national attention.

On Aug. 19, CDC said, about 1,400 people were sick: that got attention.

Yet there has been a vacuum of silence from government and industry surrounding this outbreak, a vacuum that animal welfare and political opportunists are all too ready to fill.

Chris Clayton of the Progressive Farmer wrote last week that as events have unfolded following a 550-million egg recall, groups created to be agriculture advocates — agvocates — have remained relatively quiet about the situation.

“These groups established by various producer organizations and allied industries to defend agriculture don’t want to talk about how ag should respond to the recall and the large business at the center of the federal health probe and possible criminal investigation. … the groups created within agriculture to address perceptions about agriculture are shying away from talking about the DeCoster fiasco.”

FDA, other federal agencies and industry, do themselves a tremendous disservice by failing to clearly articulate how and when the public (and industry) should be informed about potential health risks. No amount of federal legislation or lawsuits will fix this. Instead it requires a recommitment to having fewer people barf. And any company that wants to lead – especially with profits – will stop hiding behind the cloak of government inspection and will make test results public, market food safety at retail so consumers can choose, and if people get sick from your product, will be the first to tell the public.