When you buy eggs in America, the carton usually carries this warning message:
SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
I always wondered why. I eat raw eggs over rice almost every day when I'm visiting my parents in Tokyo, and then I fly back to California and promptly switch to scrambled eggs because of this fear that I'll get sick from eating raw eggs in America.
There's a 1 in 20,000 chance that an egg might contain salmonella, according to the American Egg Board. "The risk of getting a foodborne illness from eggs is very low, but the nutrients in eggs are also a good growth medium for bacteria," says Elisa Malobert, director of egg product marketing at the AEB. "To eliminate risk, we do not recommend the consumption of raw or lightly cooked eggs." It doesn't matter, she adds, whether you're eating organic and free range $8-a-dozen farm fresh eggs or super-processed $2 eggs. (Egg "grades" are determined by appearance and yolk-to-white ratio, not content quality.) Hens aren't affected by salmonella, so they can carry it and pass it onto egg yolk without anyone knowing. And if that doesn't happen, salmonella could enter through the shell after the bloom — the natural coating that protects the inside — is washed off after collection. Egg shells are super porous; there are anywhere from 7-17,000 pores on a single shell.
My brother got salmonella once from eating raw chicken at a high-end yakitori restaurant in Tokyo. I know, I know. Raw eggs are debatable, but nobody in their right minds eats raw chicken! This might imply that the Japanese are less concerned about food safety, but on the other hand, most restaurants there will never wrap up food to go precisely because food can go bad once it's no longer fresh and they don't want to be liable for that. If I can guess at any reason why the Japanese are more inclined to eat raw everything, it might be because the culture inherently appreciates and celebrates the purity of unprocessed, uncooked flavors. I don't have any numbers for the incidence of salmonella in Japanese eggs, but I'm assuming that, like American eggs, it's not that common.
Raw eggs are a great source of Vitamins B12 and D; they also have tons of protein. If you're willing to see past the USDA warning and try it, I highly recommend making tamago kake gohan — raw egg on rice — for breakfast.
Every installment of Taste Test will explore recipes, the science, and some history behind a specific food item.
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