UMaine Expert Says Egg Producers Can Reduce Disease Risks

Contact: Anne Lichtenwalner, 581-2789

ORONO – Consumers can do their part in protecting themselves from potentially contaminated poultry products, including eggs, by using common sense and sanitary food preparation practices. There also is a lot that can be done by Maine’s thousands of chicken owners.

Large commercial henhouses, family farms or even small backyard chicken coops may be host to one of many different strains of the salmonella bacteria. In eggs, it’s salmonella enteritis (SE), however, that is the most toxic to humans, and the reason behind the recent recall of millions of fresh chicken eggs nationwide.

Anne Lichtenwalner, director of University of Maine’s Animal Health Lab, a diagnostic lab on the Orono campus assisting livestock and poultry farmers, is available to discuss precautions that consumers and egg producers can take to reduce risks. She also is UMaine’s Extension veterinarian and a member of the animal and veterinary sciences faculty.

“We would like to get the message out to all egg producers that we can do environmental and egg testing, not only for salmonella, but also for toxins in eggs like heavy metals,” Lichtenwalner says.

A simple “drag swab” sample can be collected in a henhouse, barnyard or backyard coop and sent in a sterile, sealed plastic bag to the university animal health lab for testing. For small farms, Extension can advise about further testing, and clearing up any problems. When large egg producers are involved, the FDA now requires that if SE is detected, an egg test would follow to see if the bacteria is in the eggs.

“We routinely test environmental samples for large poultry producers, and we can test eggs in our lab,” she says. “The nice thing is that, here in Maine, we have not had to test eggs under the current FDA rules.”

Bacterial or other contamination of eggs “is an emerging issue in food and it always will be,” she says, particularly in light of the popularity of raising chickens in backyard, residential settings.

In the kitchen, Lichtenwalner says, consumers should wash eggs, cook them thoroughly to kill possible pathogens, buy eggs that are as fresh as possible, and note expiration dates or publicized recall notices. “Good basic common-sense food handling techniques can kill salmonella,” she says. Use soap to wash hands, utensils, counters and cutting boards, she advises.

Lichtenwalner can be reached at (207) 581-2789.