A Little Perspective on Eggs

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the media fanfare over the recall of 550 million eggs that are thought to be at risk for contamination with Salmonella. Unsurprisingly, the usual activist groups are using the news to advance their agendas. The animal-rights "Humane Society" of the United States (HSUS) is gunning for egg producers to go “cage-free.” PETA, meanwhile, is embracing HSUS's long-term agenda right now and arguing for completely vegan diets.

Piggybacking on a media-driven food scare is the worst sort of opportunism. We described last week how HSUS is cherry-picking poultry science, and how cage-free eggs may not hold any foodborne-illness advantage at all. (And experts agree.) And PETA seems to be forgetting the major outbreaks of past years involving Salmonella in tomatoes and peanut butter—you know, staple foods of vegan diets.

For the larger context in which all of this is happening, here are a few other Salmonella recalls that have been issued just in the past week:

A recall of pistachio products

Another recall of pistachio products

A recall of mamey pulp

A recall of alfalfa sprouts

Salmonella is just one of many foodborne illnesses (remember E. coli in spinach?), and it can pop up in plenty of non-egg foods.

And how does today’s food system compare to the past? Consider this: In 1967, The New York Times reported that there had been 17,000 reported U.S. cases of Salmonella illness during the previous year. In one 1965 case alone, a tainted well made 18,000 people sick.

In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database shows that there were only about 3,500 reported cases of Salmonella (of all kinds) in 2007, the most recent year data for which is available. (This number includes simply “suspected” cases, too.) And on the whole, reports of Salmonella incidence were down 10 percent in 2009 compared to the 1996-1998 period, according to the CDC.

Further, from 1998 to 2007 the CDC database shows there were about 10,200 cases of reported Salmonella Enteritidis. In comparison, despite the large number of eggs recalled, the current “outbreak” has been linked to just 300 illnesses as of this morning. While this figure could increase, the current Salmonella cases represent a fairly small event.

We’re confident that mistakes that caused the outbreak will be rectified as our food systems continue to become more secure. In the meantime, here’s a simple solution: Cook your eggs well, and turn off the television.

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