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How to buy the safest eggs: Expert tips to follow at the grocery store

The major egg recall is a good reminder to follow these practices when shopping at the supermarket or dining out.
/ Source: TODAY

One of the largest egg recalls in history is a good reminder that egg safety is no joke.

Of course, many of us know that eating raw or undercooked meat isn't a good idea, but eggs aren't always seen the same way.

"Sunny side-up, poached, runny, [softly] scrambled — the way we eat eggs, we like them rare " Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert and consultant, told TODAY Food.

When buying eggs in-shell, look for the word "pasteurized" on the carton, food safety expert Jeff Nelken recommends.
When buying eggs in-shell, look for the word "pasteurized" on the carton, food safety expert Jeff Nelken recommends.Getty Images stock

So if we don't change our behavior about how we consume eggs — which is unlikely, he added — we need to pay more attention to how we buy them.

The recent egg recall is motivation enough: More than 206 million eggs have been voluntarily recalled by Rose Acre Farms, a company based in Indiana, which traced the problem back to a North Carolina farm. (Find out how to identify recalled cartons here). It's the biggest case since the recall of a half-billion eggs in 2010.

In a nutshell, salmonella outbreaks are on the rise because egg-growing methods have changed to keep up with high-volume demand — meaning chickens are raised closer together, which leads to a greater risk of contamination, Nelken said.

When chickens are in tight proximity, there's greater risk of them defecating on top of each other. "That's why 30 or 40 years ago, salmonella was mostly on the outside of the shell," Nelken explained. "Now, because the methods have changed, you have salmonella getting into the reproductive organs."

So how do you ensure you're buying the safest eggs possible? Follow these tips.

1. Check for cracks.

When you're in a rush at the grocery store, sometimes you forget to carefully examine everything you throw in the cart. But take an extra second to look for any exterior dents or cracks on eggs. You don't want to get shortchanged on a full carton, but bacteria can more easily enter through cracks in the shell, according to the Egg Safety Center.

2. Look for sell-by and packed-on dates.

Aside from looking for a sell-by date, you can also look for the "Julian" date, or when the eggs were packed, according to the Egg Safety Center. Eggs should be safe to eat within four or five weeks of the packed-on date, as long as they're refrigerated.

3. Note that "cage free" doesn't equal safer eggs.

While there are many merits to buying cage-free eggs (namely that the animals aren't kept in tight quarters), that doesn't mean those animals don't carry salmonella. "When animals are stressed and compressed, their bacterial levels go up," Nelken said, but he added that it's difficult to know exactly when the bacteria will pop up. "It's hard to say — it's a roll of the dice. It's like asking how many times a pair of ones or sixes is going to come up."

4. Shell out a little extra for eggs pasteurized in-shell.

One key word to look for on cartons is "pasteurized," Nelken advised. You may pay about 25 percent more for eggs pasteurized in-shell, but the peace of mind may be invaluable. Pasteurized eggs are also smart to use in a Caesar salad, homemade ice cream, or any dish which uses raw or undercooked eggs.

5. Try liquified eggs.

For those with compromised immune systems who may be more susceptible to salmonella — including pregnant women, kids under the age of 5, adults over the age of 65, or someone who has just finished antibiotics — Nelken recommends pourable cartons of liquified eggs that are pasteurized. "From my point of view, if you have high-risk individuals, why would you want to take the chance of exposing your family to salmonella?"

6. Examine eggs for cleanliness.

You can't pick out a salmonella-infected egg by sight but, in general, if there is any visible dirt, blood, feces or feathers, that's a sign that the eggs are not being handled correctly and should be rejected. Of course, after handling eggs, also wash your hands, as well.

7. Keep eggs cold.

Eggs should be kept refrigerated at 41 degrees or lower — so don't leave them out on the counter, Nelken warns. And if you see some eggs at the grocery store that aren't in a refrigerated case, don't bother. If you have a 10-minute drive home from the grocery store, that's fine. But if you'll be making several stops, bring a cold pack to put in your grocery bag, he said.

8. Take extra precautions at restaurants right now.

Eggs affected by the recall weren't just sold to giant grocers and stores like Walmart. Some of the eggs reached consumers through restaurants. "If there's a problem in your community, avoid the product in question until there's clearance," Nelken recommended. "You don't know how effective the recall system has been to a particular restaurant chain." It's also always OK to ask your server where the eggs on the menu came from.

As for the food-supply chain itself, there are ways to combat the salmonella problem — Scandinavian countries have all but eradicated it after adopting new methods and a zero-tolerance policy.

Until that happens in the U.S., though, consumers may want to think like a food-safety expert and play it as safely as possible at the store.