Consumers will soon have more safe handling information and new refrigeration requirements to help prevent foodborne illness from eggs contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued a final regulation, to improve food safety as it pertains to eggs. The refrigeration requirement will be effective in 6 months, while the safe handling requirement will be effective in 9 months.

“The Clinton administration has consistently demonstrated its commitment to food safety and ensuring that the United States continues to have one of the safest food supplies in the world,” said Dr. Jane E. Henney, FDA Commissioner. “Today’s efforts should go a long way toward preventing illness that has been attributed to eggs in the past.”

Today’s regulation will require shell egg cartons to bear safe handling instructions because of eggs’ association with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), a bacterium responsible for foodborne illness. Approximately one out of every 20,000 eggs produced in the United States is estimated to be contaminated with SE. The required statement is as follows:

SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.

SE outbreaks have been attributed to undercooked eggs and foods containing undercooked eggs served in homes, private gatherings and commercial establishments.

“For consumers, eggs can be an important source of nutrition,” says Dr. Henney. “You just need to cook your eggs thoroughly — no sunny side up, no over easy. This is a case when it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Persons infected with SE may experience diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, headache, nausea and vomiting. However, children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems may develop severe or even life-threatening illness.

Additionally, the rule requires that eggs be placed promptly under refrigeration at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower upon delivery at retail establishments (supermarkets, restaurants, delis, caterers, vending operations, hospitals, nursing homes and schools). Refrigeration at an ambient temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler slows the growth and development of SE.

This rule is one part of the larger Egg Safety Action Plan, a farm-to-table approach for ensuring the safety of our nation’s egg supply, which was announced by the President on December 11, 1999. The Plan, a joint effort by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, seeks to reduce by 50 percent the number of SE illnesses attributed to contaminated eggs by 2005 and eliminate egg-associated SE illnesses by 2010.

The Egg Safety Action Plan will further enhance the strides that have already been made in reducing the incidence of SE. Efforts by federal regulatory agencies, public health prevention initiatives, egg producer quality assurance programs, and consumer education have significantly contributed to the decrease in SE incidence.