While some shoppers may be running back to their grocers amidst concerns over one of the largest egg recalls in recent history, others may be headed for the doctors to find out more about the bacterium at the center of the controversy.
So far, nearly 2,000 people have reportedly gotten sick from the egg-related outbreak, which can be pinpointed back to a strain known as salmonella enteritis. According to Dr. Christopher Braden, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of food-borne, waterborne and environmental diseases, this particular strain accounts for about 20 percent of all salmonella cases in the country.
"This is a large outbreak -- there is no doubt about that," Braden said. "It compares to some of the bigger outbreaks that we would've seen ... back in the 1980s and 1990s when we saw a lot of egg-associated salmonella [cases]."
Braden added that other types of pathogens are actually more common and far more invasive than salmonella.
Salmonellosis, or an infection of the bacteria salmonella, usually leads to diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after the infection. However, most patients can recover even after a week's bout without any treatment, so long as they remain hydrated.
The CDC estimates that potentially tens of thousands of people will become sick from the current outbreak.
People who could become extremely ill, especially if they are not on antibiotics, include infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
Also, in cases where patients suffer from extreme diarrhea, hospitalization and rehydration with intravenous fluids is strongly advised. Should the infection spread from the intestines to the blood stream and to other parts of the body, it could potentially become fatal.
To determine whether salmonella is in fact the cause of such distress, laboratory tests must be conducted on the stool of an infected person.
How Salmonella Transmits
Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacterium is typically transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.
Braden said he and his team have discovered that with this particular strain of salmonella, the bacterium has infected the ovaries of the laying hen. This is then transmitted to the outside of their eggs' shells, with any cracks allowing for contamination within the egg.
"When the egg is actually being formed, the bacteria can actually contaminate yolk and the white of the interior of the egg even if the exterior looks pristine," Braden said.
Even if distribution centers and production farms have extensive grading or washing procedures, Braden said there is little that can be done to prevent interior contamination.
However, there is a way for the bacterium to spread once the eggs are in your kitchen, with this particular strain surviving on surfaces for up to four days. Braden said if a number of eggs are being pulled together, even if just one is contaminated, it may exacerbate the situation, especially if in a restaurant environment.
Once one person is infected and experiencing diarrhea, spreading the bacterium is a possibility, especially since it doubles every 20 minutes.
Right now, Braden estimates that there are 30 cases for every one that is reported to the CDC.
Top Ten Safety Tips
In order to ensure that you and your family are safe from a salmonella infection, especially with regards to the latest egg recall, the following precautions are recommended:
Cartons containing cracked or broken eggs should be discarded in order to prevent contamination.
Cook eggs, poultry and ground beef thoroughly; don't eat food containing raw eggs.
Raw eggs may be found in any of the following: homemade hollandaise sauce, Caesar dressing, tiramisu, homemade ice cream, cookie dough and frostings.
Keep raw products separate from produce, cooked foods or ready-to-eat meals.
Contaminated eggs usually don't smell bad nor do they taste bad; rely on what they look like (i.e. avoid eggs with "runny" yolks).
If you are served undercooked eggs in a restaurant, send them back.
Be careful preparing meals for infants, elderly and those with a weak immune system.
Wash your hands, utensils and kitchen surfaces with both soap and water immediately after contact with raw products each time you touch them.
If you don't have access to soap and water, you can use hand sanitizer.
Don't work with raw products and an infant simultaneously (i.e. feeding or changing a diaper).
Those suffering with diarrhea should not prepare food or pour water for others.