WesCom News Service staff

Eggs are a potentially hazardous food, but there is no reason consumers can’t enjoy them safely this Easter holiday season. Like other perishable food items, all it takes is a little common sense when it comes to handling, preparing and storing eggs.

“Eggs are an animal product, just like any other meat product, and are exposed to food pathogens,” said Sarah Schwab, food safety specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “That’s why it is important to keep them properly refrigerated and to cook them thoroughly.”

Just like meat, an increase in pathogens can be slowed or controlled through refrigeration. Pathogens can be eliminated thorough cooking.

“Easter brings eggs to the forefront,” Schwab said. “But throughout the year, all of us should be conscientious about how we handle eggs.”

Cooking potentially hazardous foods is the key. Heat will destroy the organism that would make someone sick. Still, there are many recipes that call for raw eggs as an ingredient. Consumers should be aware those foods can also cause illness.

“Consuming raw eggs is cause for concern, especially for those people who are most susceptible — the elderly, the very young, pregnant women and immune-compromised individuals,” Schwab said.

For those who insist on eating raw cookie dough and Caesar salad, there are pasteurized egg products that can be purchased at the grocery store. Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise and eggnog are other products with recipes that may call for uncooked eggs. The safe thing to do is use the pasteurized product.

While salmonella is the main culprit of egg safety, the high amount of protein and moisture associated with eggs leaves them vulnerable to other food pathogens. Cross contaminating an egg mixture can be hazardous simply because the egg can support rapid growth of other bacteria.

Whether they come from small processors or large ones, all eggs are required to be washed and sanitized, as well as graded and sized, before they get to the marketplace. Mechanization and automation of the egg industry has helped make the egg safer prior to purchase. From the hen house to the processing line — where the egg is washed, inspected and packaged — those eggs routinely avoid contact with the human hand. That doesn’t guarantee that Oregonians automatically end up with a problem-free egg.

“We inspect both the commercial egg operations and the grocery stores that carry eggs to ensure proper handling and transportation with respect to temperatures,” Schwab said.

For consumers, a time of concern is after the eggs are purchased at the store.

“Eggs need to be refrigerated as soon as possible,” Schwab said. “Get them home quickly along with other perishable foods.”

Eggs should be kept in refrigeration that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. It’s best to consume eggs within five weeks if they remain raw, although any problems are most likely to be due to quality of the egg, not food safety-related. Leaving the eggs in the carton may allow them to last longer.

When it comes to eggs, proper preparation is essential.

Eggs should be cooked slowly over a gentle heat. Hard-boiled eggs need to be cooked until they are no longer runny, but firm. Cooked egg products should reach a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the egg is cooked, it’s best to consume it within a week. After boiling, the eggs need to get back into the refrigerator within two hours. Letting them sit on the stovetop is not advised.

Using eggs as ingredients also requires vigilance. If you are baking a meringue for Easter Sunday dinner, you need to cook it at 350 degrees for at least 15 minutes. Be careful with things like French toast, which needs to be thoroughly cooked as well. Food safety officials say it is probably better to overcook than undercook.

Hard cooked eggs are most likely to be in the spotlight this time of year. If the brightly colored Easter egg ends up as part of a child’s backyard hunt, it is best to avoid eating it. Once those eggs have been outside or handled and hidden, they could become damaged. The shell of a cooked egg is relatively porous and more susceptible to contamination. Also remember, they will be out of refrigeration. The best thing to do is discard them. If they have been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours, there should be no doubt — throw it out.

“The safest option for Easter egg hunts is to use plastic eggs,” Schwab said.

Oregon is a significant producer of eggs, which is ranked 12th in production value among all Oregon agricultural commodities. The $116 million industry — which has more than doubled in production value the past five years — ensures a fresh product of more than 732 million eggs produced in Oregon. The state’s 2.5 million egg-laying hens are concentrated in a handful of major commercial producers.

The increasing popularity of backyard chickens doesn’t change the advice when it comes to handling and preparing eggs. Refrigeration and thorough cooking are still critically important.

The local eggs on sale this week are likely to be about as fresh as they can be. Eggs will almost always arrive at the grocery store less than a week from the day they were produced. During heavy consumption periods such as Easter, those eggs are more likely to arrive within a day or two.

Despite the freshness, consumers need to handle eggs as a potentially hazardous food.

Eggs can be part of a healthy diet during Easter as well as the rest of the year. Only when they are mishandled are they likely to become a problem.

“There is no reason not to enjoy eggs this time of year, but we’ve got to be smart about it,” Schwab said.