The Round Barn: Why Over Easy Eggs Won't Kill You
Dr. Ashley Mitek: Hey, Jim, this will probably sound crazy, but I have a food safety story to share.
Dr. Jim Lowe: Shocking, but try me.
Mitek: So, I ordered eggs over easy in a drive thru the other day, but believe it or not, I never ordered eggs over easy before.
Lowe: No, I can believe that, but go on.
Mitek: So, I'm trying to parallel park while eating this over easy egg sandwich, only to realize that I'm getting egg yolk in my hair and down my sleeve. I didn't know over easy meant that it was uncooked.
Lowe: So, is this a food safety story? Or a hazardous driving story?
Mitek: Anyway, my food safety question is: is it safe to eat runny egg yolks?
Lowe: They're perfectly safe to eat. They won't make you sick, but you will have egg in your face.
Mitek: Really? Egg yolks are safe?
Lowe: Egg-actly! What's wrong, Ashley? You can't take a yolk?
Mitek: [laughs] Please, stop.
Hi, I'm Ashley Mitek, and today I'm talking with Jim Lowe from the University of Illinois to talk about food safety and how it's regulated in the United States. After all those terrible puns, we hope you stay with us. Welcome to the Round Barn.
Mitek: So, Jim, I thought eggs were contaminated with salmonella. I mean, I always freak out when my kids are baking with us, and always make them wash their hands a million times. So, help me understand, how is the yolk sterile in my situation? And I'm not gonna die, right?
Lowe: Well, not quickly.
Lowe: No, you won't die. It's a good bit, right? So, we do really worry about food safety in eggs. And that's because eggs can be contaminated with chicken poop. And so, the outside of the egg, the eggshell itself, comes out and can have chicken poop on it, and chicken poop can have salmonella in it.
Mitek: And that's just a known bacteria amongst chickens in particular?
Lowe: Yeah, it's everywhere. Chickens have it, and other things. So, basically, poop on food is always bad. That's one of the general rules, right? So we're not picking on chickens in particular. But, you know, a chicken lays an egg, and the way their anatomy works, right, the egg comes out the same place the poop comes out, so there's cross-contamination in the process there. So you get this egg, and the outside of that egg is a complicated surface. It looks like it's hard, but if you think about it, an eggshell’s got some depth and it's rough. And so, when I put the outside of that egg on, the eggshell is to protect the inside of that egg -- which, remember, the purpose of the egg was to make another chicken. So, if we fertilize that egg, we have a baby chicken in there. But we don't have fertilized eggs, so it's just an egg, it's just the ovum. So, the inside of that's sterile, because I'm trying to -- theoretically, in nature -- protect the baby chicken. So, the outside of that shell is to keep everything out. So, when the egg comes out, it ends up in the environment, and it can have salmonella on it. So, the inside of the egg, the white and the yolk, is sterile until I crack the egg. And so, now, whatever is on the shell of that egg can end up on the surface of that egg that I'm going to cook.
So, if you had an egg over easy, right, I'm going to crack that egg in a skillet and we'll fry it and we'll flip it over a little bit, put some more heat on the other side-
Mitek: I wish they had told me that bit when I ordered it. I thought it was going to be fried.
Lowe: Yeah, that's a whole 'nother conversation, the fact that you didn't know that was raw on the inside. But we digress. If there happens to be any little bit of salmonella, E. coli or other bacteria in there, right, I sear that with that heat, and that kills it. So, the inside of the egg, the bit that's touched the skillet, is sterile, and everything inside of that is sterile as well.
So, you're not going to die. We sterilize that egg when we put it in the skillet, and you're good to go. You and your kids are perfectly safe.
Mitek: The question that I thought of was, when I was growing up, whenever we made cookie dough, which had raw eggs in it, we would eat it. But then it turns out right now, there's a big brouhaha, right, you're not supposed to let your kids, or anybody, really, eat these raw eggs that are in cookie dough when you're making it. Why is that problematic?
Lowe: If we think about a raw egg in cookie dough, like, if you're going to scramble the eggs, I take the egg and I beat the egg up. So whatever is on the shell ended up on the surface of the egg, and then I beat the egg up, and the inside and the outside are mixed.
Mitek: So when I accidentally leave, like, the little parts of the shell in the cookie dough when I mix it, because I'm bad at cracking eggs-
Lowe: You also need to have a class in egg-cracking, it sounds like. We have a lot of things to work through with you, Ashley.
Mitek: [laughs] We can have an egg-cooking show.
Lowe: An egg-cooking show, we can have, like, a little video camera or something over the top. But, yeah, that's the challenge, right? We're talking about a mixed-up product that could be contaminated, and then it's raw. But, again, if I cook the egg, I kill the bacteria. So, right, rule one with food safety, and how did we live for eons without a food safety organization was, we actually cooked the food. When we didn't cook the food, occasionally things went bad. So, food safety is a thing that's gone on since the beginning of time, and it's radically improved. And we have this tremendously safe food supply today.
Mitek: Why is our food supply safe?
Lowe: We could go back to a history lesson, and maybe a literature lesson with Upton Sinclair, if we remember that name. He wrote this book called The Jungle at the turn of the previous century. I'm old enough to remember that that was the previous century, not this one. But, right, in the early 1900s, there were these horrible stories going on, really, in the first Progressive era when we were talking about busting trust and everything. There was a lot of muckraking going on, really trying to help labor organize and do things. But what came out of that Upton Sinclair The Jungle book was not the horrible working conditions for the people in the packing plant, but the fact that the packing plant was a filthy, disgusting mess. And so, what came out of that was a lot of tremendous amount of public pressure to say, "By the way, maybe we ought to regulate that a little bit."
What had happened in the country was, basically, everybody had had their own livestock in the backyard. You butchered your own animals, you made your own meat, you cooked your own milk. We didn't disseminate it fairly widely. If your cow happened to have TB and you drank the milk, your family got TB, but not everyone else got TB. Tuberculosis was spread by cows then. It's not spread by cows today, we're free. So, we had this process, right? Like, everybody was local, and everybody ate their own food, and you ate it relatively fresh, and spoilage wasn't an issue. Then, we decided we wanted to urbanize so people lived in cities. So now, they didn't have animals or crops to grow their own food. And so we started having this food supply chain, supplying food into urban centers.
And they got industrialized, and yada yada yada. So, here we are by the late 1800s, early 1900s, and Chicago is the packing capital of the world. It's the world's butcher, and livestock all went to Chicago by the rails to the stockyards and got butchered around the stockyards because it wasn't mechanized, then it got shipped out. And that industry wasn't regulated. And, like much during that era of the robber barons, that industry was running amuck and doing a lot of things that they shouldn't be doing. That included really, really filthy conditions in packing plants. So they would scoop stuff up off the floor, and there was no inspection.
And so, what came out of all that was that the United States Department of Agriculture started inspecting meat. And that's still the purview today. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service is an entire agency that's dedicated just to inspecting meat production.
Mitek: And "meat" is what? Beef, pork?
Lowe: Muscle. Beef, pork, chicken.
Mitek: Beef, pork, chicken. Not eggs?
Lowe: Not eggs. Beef, pork, chicken are all inspected by USDA FSIS. And that's really through the whole chain. So that's from the moment they arrive at the packing plant until, basically, they show up on the grocery store shelf. So any step in processing is regulated by USDA. And that process is really robust, nd it's really old, and it's the oldest food safety inspection system in the world. And so, we really know how to inspect meat and ensure that it's clean. So the point of the inspectors in the plant is that there's no contamination of the carcass, so no fecal contamination of the carcass, no other bits of the carcass; the carcasses or disease-free, so, the animal didn't have disease, particularly things like tuberculosis, so we're not spreading tuberculosis to the human population.
Mitek: How do you even tell if a carcass has tuberculosis?
Lowe: So tuberculosis is an interesting thing. They get abscesses in their lymph nodes. And so, if you actually go into a packing plant today, every pig, every calf that's harvested in the packing plant, there's somebody that physically cuts open the lymph nodes in the head where they're more likely to have lesions. So they physically look at them, and if there's anything that looks funny, that carcass gets pulled, and they make a determination if that carcass is going to stay in the food supply or not. And generally today, they just get what we would call tanked, they get disposed of and rendered for just protein source. They don't go into the human food supply.
So, there's this inspection process, and there's multiple stations. So, if there's anything that looks funny in the intestines, the carcass gets railed. And in the harvesting process, if they end up with any fecal material on the carcass, the carcass gets thrown out. So this process is really robust. And that happens all the way through the processing chain. So, if I'm making bacon, somebody is inspecting the bacon-making process. So it's clean, and the cold chain is maintained. And we know what happened, where it came from, and where is it going.
Mitek: What's the cold chain?
Lowe: The cold chain is this idea that we would keep meat below refrigerator temperature.
Mitek: What is that, 40 degrees?
Lowe: 40 degrees, below 4 Centigrade. We would say, let's just call it in the 30s Fahrenheit. And so, we keep it in that temperature, and it never gets out of that temperature range.
Mitek: Like, once we see it in the grocery store, it's been maintained?
Lowe: That's exactly right. So, from the time the animal's harvested, and the carcass is cleaned and prepped, it goes into a cooler, it's cooled very rapidly, and then all of that meat has been processed in big rooms that are refrigerator temperature. So, they maintain the cold chain. Is it cold in the truck, and how they validate the cold chain gets maintained in the truck, etc. And that's really important, because if we think about supplies or food coming to the grocery store, if it's gotten warm, it's more likely to have bacterial growth, it's more likely to spoil. When we talk about spoilage, we're really talking about bacteria growing on the surface. And that's a food safety problem.
Mitek: So the USDA regulates these meat products, and then who would you say is regulating eggs?
Lowe: Well, that's the conundrum in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration regulates eggs, and milk, and vegetables, and processed foods, and, and, and. So, the only thing USDA regulates is meat. And it's an interesting deal, because the industry actually pays for all that inspection. So it's a government organization, but the industries, the packing plants, pay for the inspectors. There's a fee that they pay, they pay to fund that organization.
Mitek: But isn't that bad? Like, could they just give them an extra $50 if they see a bad carcass and be like, "Everything's going to be fine"?
Lowe: Well, they don't pay the inspectors directly. So, if you want to think about it like this, there's a tax on packing plants. There's a fee on packing plants. There's a fee for service organizations. So the U.S. taxpayers are picking that cost up, that cost is being picked up. And it's important, because that means that's adequately funded. So what the rules require are -- and it's very transparent, it's all spelled out in the Federal Register, "We're going to do these things, thou shalt inspect these things, and industries shall pay the governments to do that work." So it's not a corrupt situation, it's just a user fee situation. So FSIS is always funded the way it needs to be funded because it's funded out of a tax on the user.
Mitek: But the FDA is not funded that way?
Lowe: The FDA is not funded that way, completely. So, there are some user fees, in government parlance, but the FDA tends to be poorly funded with respect to food inspection. So we've had some scandals, right, with eggs, we've had milk recalls, or, the biggest one is peanut butter. We had this big peanut butter recall because we had salmonella in the peanut butter.
Mitek: How do you get salmonella in peanut butter?
Lowe: Salmonella is in the dirt. Salmonella is a ubiquitous bacteria, it's everywhere. It just is what it is. It's everywhere. If you think about a peanut, peanuts are grown underground, I harvest the peanut, and the peanut's pretty dirty when it comes into the processing plant, so they shell the peanut and crush the peanut, and however you make peanut butter, the magic that occurs to make peanut butter. Well, in that process, dirt got Incorporated, right? Because the machine's dirty, and then they weren't cleaning the machines right. We're coming to find out that the FDA wasn't actually inspecting those places because they don't have the budget, they don't have the inspectors, they're not really good at enforcement.
And on the drug side of FDA, they function differently. You come to them and they say yes or no. Well, here, they've got to go to you and actually inspect. And that's not been their strength, and the supply chains are really distributed, and they're really convoluted. So this is always an ongoing discussion at the government, about, should we consolidate to one food safety inspection agency? The push has been to take it to FDA because they are the bigger of the two organizations, and they do everything but meat. And those of us in the meat industry have stood up and said, "Ah, don't do that to us, our system works. We don't have problems." So, that's kind of an ongoing discussion.
But we do have the safest food supply in the world. And we have that because we have laws that are transparent and are generally enforced, and we have a really good recall system. So, something's picked up -- if we take the peanut butter example, they can trace all that peanut butter through the supply chain, into the grocery stores
Mitek: And it seems like the meat industry or the meatpacking industry is ... I don't know if the right word is vertically integrated? You know, there's not 10,000 individually-run meatpacking plants in the U.S. They're very consolidated. Does that help with the food safety issue?
Lowe: There pros and cons of consolidation. One of the big pros is that we know where the beef and pork and chicken packing plants are. We know where those animals get harvested, and we understand the distribution chain. And there are large organizations which control those that have brands that are retail-facing brands. Let's just use Tyson as an example. Everybody knows what Tyson is. Tyson sells chicken, beef and pork. The Tyson brand is in the grocery store. The last thing Tyson wants is a food safety recall because that damages their brand value, it damages their ability to sell. So there's really strong alignment between government regulators and industry to say, "Listen, this supply chain is here, help us manage the supply chain risk."
We have, I don't know, 20-some packing plants for pork in the U.S., and less than that for beef, and there's lots of chicken plants but they're really consolidated and we know where they are. Compare that to the vegetable industry. We've seen all these recalls with lettuce, romaine lettuce, right? And spinach. And it seems like romaine lettuce has been once a month here ... it's not been that bad, but it certainly seems like it. But if you think about it, right, the supply chain, or where we get lettuce from to show up in our grocery store that you and I go shop at is huge. So, in the middle of the winter, in January, we're buying that from Chile or southern Mexico or somewhere. And in July, we're buying that from San Joaquin Valley of California. And as the weather gets cooler, we move it back south. And so, the supply chain goes up and down a corridor based upon weather, because we grow that stuff outside. So the processing plants are all over the place. They're bagging this stuff all over the place. And so the inspection process is much more difficult.
The other bit is that Mr. Lettuce Grower doesn't have a brand in the grocery store. We don't buy branded lettuce, right? If I go buy romaine lettuce, it's whatever's in the grocery store, and it probably doesn't have a label on it. I don't know, I bought it at whichever grocery store I went to today. And so there's less brand identity to protect. People do what they're paid to do, and so, when there's a really economic consequence for getting it wrong, people tend to invest a lot of money. And when there's not, maybe they're not investing quite as much.
Mitek: There's also been a lot of press recently about the pork industry, which, I don't know, do you know anything about the pork industry, Jim?
Lowe: Never heard of it before, Ashley.
Mitek: Well, I want to ask you a question about it. And it's about how Trump reduced the number of inspectors late last year, and now there's been some whistleblower complaints about how that's going to affect, potentially, food safety. And then, there's this other thing about, I think, increasing line speed. What is going on there? And should we be worried?
Lowe: Let's back up the train 400 miles.
Mitek: I thought you were going to say 400 years, and I was like, "That's too much."
Lowe: No, no. Not 400 years, 400 miles. So, what we're talking about is, there's been this alternative inspection process that's used the acronym HIMP.
Mitek: Not to be confused with hemp.
Lowe: Not hemp or marijuana. This is HIMP. So, 17, 18, 19, 20 years ago, this original idea was proposed. The idea was, we would move from this very rigid approach to inspection -- which was designed literally in the 1920s and really hasn't varied very much -- to one that was based on all industry standards for risk mitigation, which is HACCP, which is Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. The idea was, let's take our inspection intensity to the spots where we're most likely to have food safety issues.
So, this was proposed a long time ago. It's been in place as an experimental approach, temporary process, in a number of packing plants across the U.S. for 17 years, or something like that. So, we've been doing this a long time. We have a tremendous amount of data about how to do this. And I've been in those plants, I've been in regular plants, inspection isn't that different. But they've really moved the intensity away from kind of the traditional process and said, "Hey, let's work together and design where the hazards are in the plant. Where do we have potential food safety issues based on this specific plant, let's put a lot of inspection pressure on those points."
Mitek: Can you give us an example? Where is there more hazard in a particular plant compared to another part of the plant?
Lowe: Well, let me just compare and contrast the old and the new. That might be an easier spot to go. And that compare and contrast is that we still put a tremendous amount of inspection on tuberculosis because in the 1920s, tuberculosis was a problem in pigs. We had tuberculosis infections in pigs and we were infecting people with contaminated undercooked pork. The U.S. swine herd has been declared free of tuberculosis for a long time. In traditional plants, we are still inspecting with the same intensity that we were in 1920. What we've not pivoted is to say, listen, I'm really worried about poop on meat. So, when I take the viscera and we take the intestines out of a pig, if I happen to nick that intestine when I dress the pig, and I get fecal material or intestinal juice -- it's not even fecal at that point -- on the carcass, I now have contaminated that carcass with things that could be a food safety problem, food poisoning. And so, the traditional plants have some inspection on fecal contamination and a lot of inspection on tuberculosis. And what we're saying in a HIMP plant is, I want to reverse that. The risk of tuberculosis is really low because the pigs that are coming to the plant we know are not infected, so let's not put as much effort inspecting there, and let's put that effort where I could have a food safety problem. And that inspection maybe actually in post-chill -- so the carcass is harvested, it's chilled for basically 24 hours, and then we're going to cut it into the meat we're all familiar with. Let's put increased inspection in post-chill because that's actually where we could have contamination events occur. So the idea is, let's identify where the potential problems are, and then let's go put a lot of pressure on that to really ensure we've got a safe food supply.
Mitek: But you're losing me because you're talking about increasing inspection or putting more manpower in the areas where there's the biggest problem, but the headline in the press is, we're reducing the number of inspectors and we're increasing the line speed, which to me seems to be the opposite of what you're saying.
Lowe: What we're saying is that we're going to reduce the number of unionized government inspectors. And we are going to do that. We're going to have them not doing jobs which were absolutely not adding value, and shift that to having an inspector supervise more plant personnel on doing things that actually do increase value. So part of the pushback, why this has not been implemented, is that there are union contracts, and the union has pushed back fairly vehemently that they don't want to lose those jobs.
Now, why are we increasing line speed? Well, line speed rates were artificially set at a number based upon what they perceive they can inspect per hour. Now, again, this is a hazard approach. What can I actually do versus what do I want to do. And so that's part of this push to say, how do we modernize a system to address real-world concerns so we continue having the safest food supply in the world? We talked earlier, the meatpacking companies that own this, the last thing they want is a food safety violation. The last thing Tyson wants is to have a giant recall associated with one of their products. That completely damages their brand. We've got complete alignment on what we're doing here.
Mitek: So how do they figure out how far they could push the line speed?
Lowe: That'll vary plant by plant on how the plant's set up and what they can actually do, and what they can do safely. The big concern on safety is, what do we do for workers? There's a lot of people that work in a plant, so what are we going to do for worker safety? And how fast should we optimize that? As an industry, we're concerned, we make a lot of pigs today, if we can increase the line speed a little bit and not have to build another packing plant, that means that's another community we don't have to go put another facility in and go through all those challenges. And so there's a lot of benefits to saying, let's optimize what we're doing. And we all believe that we can actually increase food safety by modernizing the process. And that's not been the spin, because the spin has been, "Listen, we're going to take away some government jobs," and obviously there's some pressure on that.
Mitek: When I go buy eggs at the grocery store, there's two kinds. I don't understand the A and all the sizes, but that can be for our cooking show. But there's also one carton that has a really cute picture of a chicken that's, like, running around the grass, and then there's a picture of ... well, it doesn't have a picture, because they're not free-range or grass-fed or whatever the key marketing words are. But I always buy the free-range eggs. And I always thought that that means they're probably healthier, they're happier. And am I right?
Mitek: [laughs] Why?
Lowe: I think the key is, one, they're equal safety. Let's start with that. We don't have a food safety issue. You're not going to get sick buying either one. The difference is where they're raised. We buy the opposite, we buy whatever's cheap. We're a cheap house, so we eat a lot of eggs, and they're always on the cheap bucket. It'd break our budget, we'd have to starve. That's a joke, people.
Mitek: You don't have a backyard chicken flock?
Lowe: No, no, no, we do. So, what's the difference between those? It's what they eat. What an animal eats tends to be in its product. So if I change the diet of the chicken, I get a very different egg. We love backyard chicken eggs, right? One of our faculty here at school has got some chickens out back, and we occasionally get those [eggs], and they're fantastic, they taste good, they're much darker yellow. There's a different eating quality to them. But there is a potential food safety trade-off. When I buy the commercial egg, the commercially, conventionally-raised egg, those hens are raised in a battery cage, which means that they're in a cage that's got a sloped floor, and it's all wired, and the poop falls through the floor; but more importantly, when the chicken lays the egg, the egg immediately rolls out onto a conveyor belt away from the chicken.
Mitek: Do you know why they call it a battery cage?
Lowe: I don't know.
Mitek: How was that a good marketing decision?! [laughs]
Lowe: I think it's because they're stacked, like you would have a battery of guns stacked on top of each other. The cages are stacked in a staggered layer. So, the front cages, the bottom cages are closer to you than the top cages. The cages are stacked in a way that the manure falls out of the cage onto the floor, and not on top of the chickens underneath them. So, they're multiple cages high, and they step back, so it's kind of this angled battery, like a gun battery. You don't want to put the bottom gun behind the top because they'd shoot each other.
Mitek: I don't even know what a gun battery is.
Lowe: It's an old term. So, the conventionally raised chicken goes, and that the egg comes out immediately. When we think about a free-range chicken, that chicken's outside eating whatever. Bugs, whatever. And that makes the egg darker and different. But the other bit is that they're going to go lay in a box. Right, this is how chickens have been raised on farms forever. Well, remember, I said that the egg and the poop come out the same place. Well, a chicken goes and nests and lays her egg, and she probably poops in the box, too. So, the problem is that the fecal contamination rate on those eggs is higher.
So, can I wash them? Absolutely. They all get washed. That's a routine practice. But washing it makes it less bad, not perfect. And so, right, we don't die from these eggs because we tend to cook them and they're safe. So, is there an issue with eating free-range eggs? No. Are they more likely to be contaminated? Probably yes, just because of where the chickens lay the egg and what's going to happen.
Mitek: But as long as I cook it, I should be okay?
Lowe: Yes, even if you eat it over easy and put it in your hair, you'll be just fine.
Mitek: [laughs] Okay, my new shampoo. Alright, well, thanks, Jim, for joining us. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. We hope you enjoyed listening, and we'd love to hear from you, too. Find us on Twitter. Our handle is @TheRoundBarn1. Or, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may even share your comments on the next show. Please subscribe and tell your friends about the show. It's available on iTunes or the podcatcher of your choice.
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