Eggs Sunny-Side-Up Warning

Americans will soon be warned on carton labels to stop eating eggs sunny-side-up and cook them thoroughly in a federal effort to protect consumers from food poisoning such as salmonella, the Clinton administration says.

The labels and related egg safety steps were proposed by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department amid growing pressure from some Democrats in Congress for tougher measures to protect the public.

"These additional steps will help educate consumers and reduce food-born illness caused by contaminated eggs," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

Salmonella enteriditis (SE) is carried by about one egg in every 20,000 of the 67 billion U.S. eggs consumed annually. Unlike other food-born diseases from fecal material or dust contamination, eggs are infected while they are being formed inside the hen.

The bacteria causes nausea, fever, abdominal cramps, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea in an estimated 310,000 Americans, but only one in about every 39 cases is actually reported, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Some 100 deaths a year are linked to salmonella.

The action came at the same time a report criticizing federal health efforts was presented at a congressional hearing.

The report by the General Accounting Office found that too many federal agencies have done too little, too slowly to protect Americans from salmonella-contaminated eggs. It concluded that new national standards and better coordination among the several agencies with jurisdiction over the issue is needed.

The FDA and Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service share responsibility for measures designed to combat food-borne illnesses. The FDA regulations apply to grocery stores, nursing homes and schools, while the FSIS directive applies apply to warehouses that store eggs packed in containers for sale to consumers.

The two groups also proposed a federal requirement that eggs and egg products prepared for consumers be kept refrigerated at 45 degrees or colder.

In addition, the FDA has proposed that each egg carton carry safe handling instructions for consumers that warn that eggs "may contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness, especially in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems."

The instructions recommend that eggs be kept refrigerated, that egg yolks be cooked until they are firm, and that foods containing eggs be cooked thoroughly.

Incidence of salmonella poisoning has decreased by 44 percent since 1996, but it remains a troublesome public health problem. Officials said the proposed new measures could prevent up to 66,000 illnesses and 40 deaths a year.

Raw or undercooked eggs can be found in such favorites as runny fried eggs, thick-cut French toast, Caesar salad and unbaked cookie dough.

Further measures to control egg-borne diseases are being developed by the President's Council on Food Safety and will be copleted by Nov. 1, the announcement said. The new proposed regulations are being published in the Federal Register and will be open to comment for the next 75 days.