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November 8, 2011 > Do I sense rotten eggs?

Do I sense rotten eggs?

Submitted By Anaha Raghunathan, Anirudh Prabhu, Anusha Chillara, Dwayne Bhatia, Nihal Maunder, Rudrik Suthar, and Shivane Sabharwal

Editor's Note: This article was written by a group of students from Hopkins Junior High in Fremont participating in a robotics competition organized by First Lego League (FLL). For this year's theme of "Keep the Food Safe," participants have to program a robot to solve a set of Food Safety missions, while doing research on a real-world problem. Students must present the research as well as an innovative solution. The competition will take place on Sunday, November 13 at Dublin High School. More information is available at http://www.firstlegoleague.org/challenge/2011foodfactor


The boiled egg that you took from the refrigerator for breakfast didn't taste right but you were in a hurry and gobbled it up without a second thought. After an hour or two, you felt something was not right in your body. The first sign of an impending disaster was a cramp in your stomach which slowly developed into nausea and, before long, rushed to the sink and threw up. Sound familiar? You have succumbed to one of the most common forms of food contamination in America - eggs contaminated by the deadly bacteria, Salmonella Enteritidis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contaminated eggs caused 82 percent of Salmonella Enteritidis cases between 1985 and 1998. In August 2010, more than half a billion eggs were recalled due to contamination by the same bacteria, in the biggest egg recall of recent memory. There was a time when it was safe to eat raw eggs. We consumed them in interesting ways, such as eating them raw, to sunny-side up with toast. So why did eggs become one of the most common causes for food poisoning in America?

How did eggs get contaminated? What precautions can we take to make eggs safe to consume? These are some of the questions that we, a group of middle school students from Hopkins Junior high, have researched as part of the "Keep Food Safe" challenge of the first Lego League Robotics Competition of 2011. The following are our findings to help educate readers on the sources of egg contamination and measures to prevent it.

Mass production of eggs in a factory-like setting has made the journey of an egg from inception to consumption a perilous one, with the potential for it to be infected at every stage, primarily due to human causes. The unsuspecting egg can get attacked right from the moment it is created in the ovary of the hen.

If the hen is raised in an unhygienic condition or given food that is spoiled, the hen gets infected with bacteria, which lodges in its ovary and then slips into the defenseless egg. Even if the egg manages to dodge this bullet, it is still not out of the woods. If the laid egg is not collected within a few hours and not kept in a cold storage under 41 degrees F, it can become infected. From storage, the egg makes its way to a factory where it is washed to remove dirt and sanitized, and then packaged for transport. Human hands are involved in each of these activities and a pair of unhygienic hands is all it takes to taint the egg.

The egg is then transported hundreds of miles to its final destination, which is the refrigerator of a home, hotel, or the shelves of a supermarket. During this journey, if the temperature is not maintained at approximately 41 degrees F or if the shell of one of the eggs develops a crack, the egg may become contaminated. The egg, when ready to be consumed, is most vulnerable to infection, because it is exposed to bacteria.

So what precautions should we take to improve the probability of eating a safe and healthy egg? One would think that this would be common knowledge since man has consumed eggs for centuries. However, in a survey of Bay Area parents conducted by our group, only 18 percent claimed that they had full knowledge of how to safely cook an egg, while an astonishing 56 percent said that they only had a partial idea and 26 percent admitted that they had no idea!

So we took the question to Chef Giacomo Stoltz, chief chef of The Newark Hilton Hotel, to get an authoritative answer. In an interesting interview, he drew from his wealth of experience and shared some simple steps to enjoy eggs safely. His first recommendation was to always store eggs at or below 41 degrees F, and during preparation, to cook them for at least three minutes at 155 degrees F. Chef Giacomo also cautioned against consuming raw eggs. Above all, the most important advice he gave was to focus on personal hygiene. The chef insisted on the need to wash hands for 20 seconds in hot water before handling eggs. He also elaborated on the necessity to maintain sterile cooking surfaces and associated utensils to avoid cross-contamination.

The next time you eye an egg dish, after reading this article, you are most likely going to think twice before eating it. You might even wish there was a way to guarantee that the cooked food you were going to consume was free of contamination. On this front there is some good news. Our group did some research and found out that there is some help on the way based on the research done by Dr. Christopher R. Lloyd, Director of Research and Development for MicroBioSystems. In our interview with Dr. Lloyd, he indicated that there is a possibility of developing a hand-held scanner that can even be used in homes and indicate the presence of contamination. Until such time, be sure to wash your hands and store/cook eggs at the right temperature. Bon-Appetit!

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