by Marion Nestle
Feb 8 2012

Listeria in hard-boiled eggs? How come?

A company called Michael Foods has recalled more than one million hard-boiled eggs because of possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.  These especially nasty bacteria grow happily at refrigerator temperatures.

Michael Foods packaged the eggs in buckets of brine at a facility in Wakefield, Nebraska.  Investigators suspect a room in the packaging plant as the most likely source of contamination.  Listeria do tend to lurk in wet crevices of packing plants.

The company’s recall notice says:

None of the eggs were sold directly by Michael Foods to retailers or consumers. However, food distributors and manufacturers who purchased the eggs could have used them in products that were sold to retail outlets or used in foodservice settings.

Think: commercially prepared egg salad sandwiches and potato salads.

If you can’t quite get how a million hard-cooked eggs could be exposed to Listeria, you have plenty of company, mine included.

Hard-boiled eggs are boiled.  They are sterile.  What could have happened?

I went to the Web to find out how eggs are processed for commercial use, and discovered the Sanovo Group.   This company produces machines that wash and peel hard-boiled eggs (check the video).

The company’s SB 20000 Egg Boiler, for example:

automatically boils, cools and peels up to 20,000 eggs/hour. It can handle both brown and white eggs [Huh?  Why would anyone expect a difference?]….The SB 20000 Egg Boiler centres the yolk on stainless steel rollers, improving the egg quality and yield. A uniform boiling of the eggs is obtained by the built-in conveyor working with up to 18 minutes boiling time.

The boiled eggs are cooled for 23 minutes in the SC 20000 Egg Cooler, improving the peeling of the eggs. Ice water is injected in the centre of the cooling drum for optimal cooling transmission to the egg.

The SP 20000 Egg Peeler gently cracks the eggshells. Using the hygienic and no-scratch peeling technique. The complete system is easily cleaned for optimal hygiene.

The contamination must have occurred after the eggs were peeled or while they were in the buckets.

To me, the mere thought of peeled, hard-cooked eggs sitting in pails of cold, Listeria-friendly salt water for who knows how long be should make anyone run for the nearest testing kit.

These egg recalls are a perfect example of the hazards of industrial-scale food production.

Support your local egg farmer and peel your own eggs!

  • Back in high school, I worked as a prep cook. Our chef wanted everything from scratch, even salad dressing. I spent hours peeling eggs, chopping capers, smashing peppercorns… Our caesar salad dressing was a slimey blend of fresh garlic, olive oil and anchovies (along with secrets from his locked recipe box.) We’d prepare a caesar salad with raw egg yolk. Yes, one raw yolk, freshly cracked into the bowl just before romaine was tossed in. No one ever, ever got sick from the restaurant unless it was from overindulgence.

    What a difference commercial processing makes. Now eggs are scary raw, and cooked? It is unbelievable how many food service outlets and restaurants buy eggs in a pail.

  • Jase

    Or raise your own eggs, it is easy, doesn’t take much space or time and the eggs are so good I can’t eat a grocery store or restaurant egg anymore. That is a pretty nice to have problem.

  • Lynn

    I had to roll my eyes too at the specification of brown and white eggs. I wonder if there is a manufacturer of apple peelers that specifies that their equipment can peel both red and green apples.

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  • Emily

    The thing with brown eggs is a subtle difference in the membrane just inside the shell. It’s slightly more clingy, and makes peeling the egg slightly more of a pain. I used to work at an old fashioned soda fountain, and we made egg salad in quantity twice a week. Sometimes the eggs were white ones from the grocery store, and sometimes they were brown ones from a local seller. The membrane is even clingier when the eggs are freshest… I hated those gol-durned eggs.

  • justthefacts

    Such wonderful posts today! I agree about the brown eggs being harder to peel, but never knew why–thanks Emily.

    I have backyard hens and have used raw egg for Caesar salad all my life with no problems. Luckily, I’ve never purchased a commercially boiled or peeled egg that I know of. My mother instilled a fear of commercially prepared egg salad in me many years ago and I’ve always made my own potato salad. Whew!

    The scale of this industry (1,000,000,000 eggs!) is frightening. I keep four hens on a city lot and they require very little–less than the dog and easier to cope with while away for travel. I give away most of the eggs as the two of us don’t use that many. Friends and neighbors all clamor for them.

  • Sam

    I think the lesson is to cook you eggs, no matter where they’re from, yourself and thoroughly.

  • This post is a little harsh on the engineers that developed the hard boiled egg machine. I know your point is that food should not be industrialized, but you have to admit that it is pretty amazing that a machine can automatically boil and peel that many eggs.

    It sounds like the company that bought these machines made an egregious mistake in not immediately packaging the eggs.

  • While I generally agree with the sentiment of the article, I do wonder how many people could afford eggs if they were only sold by small-scale farmers using organic methods.

    Organic foods are a luxury as it is, and if you truly want to provide the entire population with, the issue of affordability has to be tackled.

  • There is indeed no difference between brown and white eggs when it comes to cooking and peeling. I suspect that the brown eggs that Emily had trouble peeling at the soda fountain were simply fresher eggs (from a local) than the white eggs that she got from the supermarket. Fresh eggs are hard to peel. Older eggs have more air in them, which makes them easier to peel. When I make hard-boiled eggs at home on our farm, I use the oldest eggs I can find. But enough about brown and white — the important point is that large-scale food processing can create large-scale problems when things go wrong.

  • What came first, the “sicken” or the egg?

  • MargaretRC

    I agree 100 %. Eggs are cheap food, even at expensive farmers’ market prices. How else can you feed 4 people for a few dollars? (if each ate 3 eggs and a dozen is $3.50, which is what I pay at my farmers’ market. A trick I learned from someone who raises chickens, if the eggs are really fresh, add some salt to the water in which you boil them. They’ll be as easy to peel as older eggs. Boil and peel your own. It’s easy and safe.

  • Comment

    What if you live in a care home? Or eat in a hospital or cafeteria? What if someone else is preparing your food? Do you request that they take a trip to a farmers’ market to purchase organic free-range local eggs for everyone? And cook everything from scratch? People who eat these special eggs are privileged.

    We need better food safety regluations for the rest of the population.

  • Margeretrc

    @comment, point taken. I wasn’t saying care homes, hospitals, and such necessarily need to get organic eggs or get them from the farmers’ market. I was merely pointing out that even organic and/or farmers’ market eggs are still relatively cheap food–in a family setting, not institutional. But, wherever their eggs come from, why can’t such institutions boil and peel their own eggs? Both are relatively easy things to do on site, even in large quantities.

  • A lot of machines use cameras to help position items in place. If the egg peeler does have cameras, it would be important for the software to be written for shape, not color.

    Organic, local, farm fresh eggs aren’t immune to food borne illness. There’s two ways that eggs can accumulate bacteria that cause food borne illness.

    First, it can come from the egg laying chicken (here’s a nice summary of how that works, which is food safety experts recommend refrigerating eggs and cooking them before using.

    Second, it can come from processing, whether that processing is on an industrial scale or in your home. The only difference is that any bacteria present in an industrial setting can spread to more servings of food simply because there are larger amounts in contact with each other. Bad food handling is bad food handling – don’t leave hard boiled eggs sitting in water for extended periods of time!

  • Cathy Richards

    Support your local farmer, peel your own eggs…and support your local chickens to have a better life instead of being confined to egg production “barns” (internment camps more like it)!

    And for that matter — make your own egg salad!!! I can’t imagine how many steps there are for contamination and growth of that contamination in the commercial egg salad business. Hundreds of chances for things to go wrong. Not to mention how salty and fatty (I’m not talking egg yolk fat) it is.

    Let’s remind everyone that when you have the runs, you do not have the “stomach flu”. You have food poisoning or Norwalk.

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  • Chris

    There is a company Family owned company in Indiana that hard cooks 1 million eggs a day. This is done in a state of the art facility that conforms to the strictest food safety program available (Level 3 Safe Quality Foods). The quality of care that goes into insuring this type of issue does not occur goes above and beyond what any 5 star restaurant has to offer. There are Teams(Management, Quality Assurance, and Quality Control, SQF INSPECTORS) of people in place that do nothing but enforce quality check points, constantly and consistently testing and monitoring every aspect of the process from he moment the Raw product arrives to the moment the finished product leaves the facility. I know this because I work there and would put more faith in the quailty of our process than any restaurant or venue I have ever have the pleasure of enjoying.