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Cracking a safer egg

Rocky Balboa may have looked cool drinking raw eggs for breakfast, but he wasn’t being smart.

When you eat raw or lightly cooked eggs, you run the risk of contracting salmonella. It’s a bacterium that sickens more than 1 million people and causes more than 400 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But thanks to a method developed by researchers at The Ohio State University, a safer egg could be on store shelves within the next year or two, according to Ken Lee, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and director of the Food Innovation Center, which tackles food-related issues around the world.

Right now, customers already may find some pasteurized eggs on store shelves, but Lee said those eggs are treated with extremely high heat.

“The whites begin to form solids and is seen as a turbid or milky appearance,” Lee said. “In essence they are partially cooked.”

That inspired researchers to find a better method to pasteurize eggs. They discovered that using ozone, a pale blue gas, in combination with some heat, would still pasteurize eggs and eliminate the risk of salmonella. Used by many industries as a disinfectant, ozone is recognized by the FDA as a safe way to treat foods. 

“It will kill any pathogens, including salmonella,” Lee said. “It’s also effective against bird flu.”

Lee said researchers discovered they could force high concentrations of ozone gas into the egg and apply a little bit of heat. As a result, the eggs became pasteurized and had no risk of containing salmonella.

“This was a very interesting discovery, which immediately got the attention of Ohio egg processors,” Lee said. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Ohio produced the second-largest number of eggs in 2016, behind only Iowa.

Researchers forced high concentrations of ozone gas into the egg and applied a little bit of heat. The eggs became pasteurized and had no risk of containing salmonella.

Ohio State researchers patented the technology and worked with a group of egg processors to start making larger batches of pasteurized eggs for sale. Using grant money from a state program, they built a facility in Lewis Center, Ohio where they now produce the eggs.

Lee said using pasteurized eggs is especially important for people who make recipes with raw eggs, such as hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing and tiramisu. Plus, some school lunch programs and many hospitals and nursing homes won’t use whole shell eggs because of the risk of salmonella.

“If you walk into a nursing home or hospital and order eggs, you’re likely getting powder or liquid eggs because those are pasteurized,” he said.

Lee said these newer, safer pasteurized eggs are starting to show up in some restaurants, and he predicts it won’t be long before the eggs are produced for the mass market and become available in grocery store coolers. “It’s long overdue,” he said.