Monday, September 6, 2010

Food Safety, emphasis on eggs

Eggs and salmonella have been in the news again, alas. Back in the 1980's, when I was starting a family, we were told to never, ever let our children eat undercooked eggs. The idea of a childhood lacking in raw cookie dough and licking the cake batter off the beaters was anathema to me, so I decided to take a calculated risk. We wore our seat-belts even when we were just backing the car out of the garage, the children wore bike helmets starting when they rode tricycles, I would drench the kitchen in straight bleach whenever I had to handle raw chicken -- but we ate raw cookie dough. Luckily, we never got sick. (I don't promote eating raw eggs for anyone else, needless to say!) The only time any of us felt ill was from over-indulgence -- oh, and the time my daughter, hooked on cookie dough, bought a container of it from a school fund-raiser and kept it in her locker, unrefrigerated, for a week. Even then, I think she was sick from eating too much rotting food, not from salmonella, as the dough was pasteurized.

Now there is another salmonella outbreak, and we're hearing more and more about the inhumane conditions under which eggs are produced. The New York Times ran an article on August 15 which gave graphic evidence of the tiny, crowded cages and the misery in which hens live. This factory model has contributed directly to the spread of salmonella; once the bacteria get introduced into the factory, it spreads like wildfire and is impossible to eradicate. If we were lackadaisical about our chances of getting this unpleasant disease before, we are less so now.

In the bakery, of course, we're not lackadaisical about any aspect of food safety. We're certified food safety managers (no tiaras are involved, but we do have certificates!) and we do everything we can to make sure the foods we make are safe as well as delicious. The first step is obsessive hand-washing; we have a double-hand-wash system. This means that when an employee walks into the kitchen, she has to wash her hands -- even if she's just come from scrubbing her hands in the laundry or bathroom. We wash our hands when we touch our heads, faces, or hair; we wash our hands when we touch a door handle, the garbage can, the sink, a broom or mop handle, or other cleaning supplies. Before we touch finished, baked food, we put on a new pair of plastic gloves, or we use tongs -- your food hasn't been touched by anyone since it came out of the oven. This isn't (or shouldn't be) unusual in the restaurant business; it is required by food safety ordinances and standards. If you see a server touch your food before you eat it and after it's been cooked, ask for a replacement portion -- and speak to the manager. If you saw it happen, it most likely isn't the first or only time. (It goes without saying, or should, that your health-care providers should adhere to even higher standards. Tell them to wash their hands in front of you, or they don't get to touch you!)

Eggs are a special challenge in the bakery. There is no other single ingredient that is as necessary for good baking, yet carries such possible risks. We take extra care with our eggs.

First, we buy from reputable, certified sources. I'd love to support family farmers and buy truly free-range, organic eggs, but for the sake of our customers' health, we need our eggs to be certified.

Secondly, we wash our eggs before using them. No matter how clean and state-of-the-art their production facility might have been, we don't know who has touched the eggs before we get them -- an egg factory handler, another customer, whoever.

We store our eggs in the lowest part of the refrigerator. This accomplishes two goals; the eggs are stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator (cold sinks, heat rises) and, if an egg breaks in the box and drips out, it won't contaminate other foods. Experts say that those cunning egg holders often provided on the doors of refrigerators are exactly the wrong place to store eggs. The door is the warmest part of the refrigerator, the frequent jiggling of the eggs does them no good, and the box provides extra protection. Leave them in the box!

Since the bacteria are in the eggs when they are laid, washing the eggs (while a good basic hygiene step) doesn't get rid of it. Cooking eggs and egg-containing products to a safe temperature is the best way to protect against illness. At the end of this post, you will find the Centers For Disease Control's information on cooking temperature safety for eggs and other foods. In the bakery, all of our brownies, cakes, cookies, and other egg-containing treats are cooked to at least 195˚F -- far above the 160˚ recommended to kill salmonella.

There are pasteurized eggs available, but the whites don't beat up as readily as unpasteurized eggs. Still, they are a useful option in some dishes (meringues, for example) where the dish temperature might not reach 160˚F.

At the end of the day, we wash our pots, pans, bowls, and other cooking utensils in very hot water and sanitizing detergents, so any errant germs are killed or washed down the drain. We don't dry items with dish towels -- the food-safety police frown on that. Let them air-dry. Isn't it nice to know you aren't being lazy -- you're being safe!

If an egg is contaminated with salmonella, it is still usable -- which is lucky, since, outside of a laboratory test, there's no way to know if any particular egg has the germs. So we all may be using eggs with germs (you, too!) but we don't have to -- and shouldn't -- get sick from them.

COOK: Cook to Safe Temperatures
Use a clean food thermometer when measuring the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods to make sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature:
Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 °F.
All cuts of pork to 160 °F.
Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 °F.
Egg dishes, casseroles to 160 °F.
All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
Stuffed poultry is not recommended. Cook stuffing separately to 165 °F.
Leftovers to 165 °F.
Fish should reach 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating.
Reheat other leftovers thoroughly to at least 165 °F.

CHILL: Refrigerate Promptly
Keep food safe at home, refrigerate promptly and properly. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures are above 90 °F).
Freezers should register 0 °F or below and refrigerators 40 °F or below.
Thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Foods should not be thawed at room temperature. Foods thawed in the microwave or in cold water must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature before refrigerating.
Marinate foods in the refrigerator.
Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
Don't pack the refrigerator. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

CDC's Web site :