The Unbreakables: In Defense of the Egg Squad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New Jersey got it all wrong. Again.

Oh sure, everyone got a big laugh when the state's Department of Health issued a regulation forbidding restaurants from serving undercooked eggs, a statute that would eliminate over easy, runny, sunny-side-up and soft-poached preparations. The rule went into effect on Jan. 1 but was suspended last week after a tremendous public outcry normally reserved for protesting tax increases or toxic waste dump openings. The guideline was called, among other things, "stupid, ridiculous, intrusive, unenforceable."

Even Johnny Carson got his shot in during a "Tonight" show monologue saying that, "There's something wrong with a state in which you can buy an Uzi but there's a 10-day waiting period to get a Caesar salad."

And journalists covering the ensuing controversy over the underdone-egg ban had a field day using silly puns in their reports, for example, calling state officials "egg heads in Trenton," and scoffing at the notion of "egg police" enforcing the ban. There was even a report that New Jersey's unpopular governor, Democrat Jim Florio, helped his public standing by "scrambling" to put the ban on hold.

Everyone missed the point while rushing to hurl insults and wisecracks.

Instead of vilification, New Jersey health officials should be given some credit for being the first in the nation to at least attempt to take some action against the rising number of potentially fatal Salmonella enteritidis cases linked to raw or undercooked eggs. Between 1985 and 1991, there were 12,916 such illnesses as well as 49 related deaths in this country, according to one recent report.

And the state was certainly within its jurisdictional rights because New Jersey is in the region--mid-Atlantic--that has reported most of these particular infections, which can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, fever and diarrhea. Most importantly, S. enteritidis can also be fatal among infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. In fact, New Jersey ranks sixth in the country in terms of overall, reported Salmonellosis cases, according to the Centers for Diseases Control, a figure that is proportionally higher than its rank as the ninth most populous state.

New Jersey originally proposed fines between $25 and $100 for those restaurants serving improperly cooked eggs. Critics sneered that it was absurd to think of anyone enforcing such a law. Well, it is far from absurd.

Restaurants and food processing plants have volumes of regulations that must be followed whether a government inspector is on the premises or not. The egg guidelines would have been no more out of place under general sanitation practices then making sure perishable food was properly refrigerated.

Besides, government food inspectors are considered heroic if they can inspect every facility in their territory just once a year. So, egg law or no egg law, most public places serving food are operating, not under egg or chicken police, but under a license that requires that they maintain certain health codes. It is a contract between government, the food industry and consumers that works like an honor system. Standards are set, accepted by business operators and then underfunded and understaffed health departments try to ensure they are met.

Although there are no similar undercooked egg bans in the country, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is strongly urging that all nursing homes avoid using fresh eggs. Instead, these facilities should substitute powered or pasteurized egg products because of the high rates of illness and deaths linked to S. enteritidis that are now being reported in these institutions. If nursing homes insist on using fresh eggs then the FDA advises, "no poached, runny or sunny-side-up eggs."

"Nursing home residents accounted for 2.4% of the food-borne illnesses in the United States between 1975 and 1987, but 19.4% of the deaths. The elderly were 10 times more likely to die of food-borne illnesses than younger adults," according to an FDA report on the issue. Needless to say, seniors in this country also spend a fair share of their budget eating out in restaurants as well.

A similar episode to the New Jersey egg fiasco occurred in recent years in Canada, but did not result in as many guffaws.

Canadian health officials discovered a sharp jump in the reports of E. coli, a severe illness which causes bloody diarrhea that can last for months. In 1982, there were only 25 cases but by 1989 the number had risen sharply to 2,400, surpassed only by salmonella in terms of total Canadian food-borne illnesses.

After investigating the problem, the government linked undercooked, ground beef to the of surge in E. coli cases and immediately sent out an advisory urging consumers and food service operations to cook most cuts of beef, particularly patties, thoroughly. (Californians recently returned from a trip to Alberta province reported that they were repeatedly rebuffed by waiters when they tried to order hamburgers cooked medium rare because of the Canadian government directive.) Officials now call the illness "hamburger disease" or "barbecue syndrome" and stated it was a "major problem" with each hospitalization costing about $13,000. The outbreaks are not limited to Canada and have also been experienced in a few northern states, such as Minnesota.

In attacking the E. coli outbreak, Canada recognized that a food poisoning problem existed and tried to do something about it. In the United States, where jurisdiction for the safety of the food supply is Balkanized between several federal agencies there has been no comprehensive plan to solve the problem of S. enteritidis in eggs.

For instance, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believe that flocks infected with Salmonella should be destroyed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says other methods short of killing the birds, such as consumer education, should be used to fight the outbreak. Result: stalemate.

In the meantime, New Jersey health officials attempted to inform consumers about a growing food poisoning problem by adding just one statute to a long list of guidelines that restaurants must now follow. And for their effort, they were shamed by their constituents, the media and local political leaders.

Certainly, there is some humor in a raging battle over runny eggs. But will the people of New Jersey, young and old, be best served now that they can order and eat all the undercooked or raw eggs they want?

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