Bacterial contamination, particularly from Salmonella, is a concern with broken eggs, and there are factors to consider when deciding whether or not to eat one. Salmonella is the most common foodborne illness in the United States today, according to recent information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though it is more likely to sicken the elderly, people with a depressed immune function and young children. As of 2013, the CDC has reported a “significant decrease” in egg-related salmonella cases. Still, to be safe, only take your chances with lightly cracked eggs, and only if you plan on cooking them.
Depends on Your Definition of Broken
There is a difference between eating an egg that is lightly cracked and one that has been thoroughly broken. A light crack that hasn't fully split the shell or damaged the inner membrane is less likely to result in bacterial contamination than a fully broken shell that pierces the yolk after tearing the membrane. That, however, doesn't guarantee the egg's safety, as bacteria can already be present inside of the egg from the chicken, according to the Egg Safety Center. A full break is risky. It allows any contaminants on the shell to reach the inner egg.
Assume Contamination With a Dirty Break
Sometimes when an egg breaks, the safest course of action is to consider it contaminated. A dirty break can be risky. If you dropped the egg on a kitchen counter that hasn't been cleaned in a few hours, don't bother to try to save it, not with all those countertop germs. If the shell looked smudged or dirty, it could have been in dirt or fecal matter, and the broken shell probably pushed particles of it into the egg. If the egg was stuck to the carton, due to leakage from a small crack, and broke as you tried to take it out, throw it away. Bacteria could have entered through the tiny crack hours or days before and the container may have its own assortment of bacteria.
A Clean Break Has Use Potential
Estimates place the Salmonella contamination rate at about one out of every 20,000 eggs, or 0.005 percent, according to the Egg Safety Center. If you drop an egg on the counter and it hits hard enough to make a few cracks, but doesn't rip the membrane, there's not a clear path for bacteria to enter. A clean egg rolling into a freshly cleaned sink may be safely salvageable, depending on what you choose to use it for and how you feel about a one in 20,000 chance.
Baking With the Egg Is Safer
Health officials and egg experts have varied opinions on whether or not it is safe to eat cracked or broken eggs. The CDC and other groups are firmly against it, pointing to the potential for bacterial contamination. However, there are plenty of experts that say using broken eggs with due caution is reasonably safe, including the Egg Safety Center. Some recommend using such eggs for baking instead of on the breakfast plate. That way, it is fully cooked, a much better option for using a cracked or broken egg.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Salmonella in Eggs: An Unwelcome Summer Visitor
- Egg Safety Center: Egg Food Safety Frequently Asked Questions
- Egg Farmers of Alberta: All About Eggs
- Egg Safety Center: Recall and Egg Safety - Questions and Answers
- University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Food Safety Facts: Facts About Eggs
- Virginia Cooperative Extension: Proper Handling of Eggs: From Hen to Consumption
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