Private households have been identified as the most commonplace of food consumption leading to salmonellosis outbreaks and a place where contamination and mishandling of foods are frequent.

A new study by the SafeConsume project researchers from Universidade Católica Portuguesa and Instituto de Ciências Sociais - Universidade de Lisboa, based on a representative survey of the Portuguese population (N=933), explored how consumers handle eggs, from shopping to cooking through storage, using a Critical Consumer Handling (CCH) perspective - a transdisciplinary framework combining Food Safety’s HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) and a sociological approach to social practices to analyse safe food handling practices at home. This novel framework allowed researchers to identify unsafe egg handling practices that can be targeted to reduce the health burden of Salmonella.

Many consumers prefer backyard eggs, that can be produced in a range of conditions

Unlike store-bought eggs that are controlled for production conditions to ensure low levels of contamination, backyard eggs can be produced in a wide (and often unknown/uncontrolled) diversity of conditions, it being more likely to risk trigger. Consumers often prize backyard eggs, which are understood as healthier, safer, and closer to nature than industrially produced eggs. Additionally, backyard eggs are often rooted in social relationships, as gifting eggs and other homegrown foods is an important cultural and social norm in rural communities (and in urban areas through rural background social networks).

Consumers heavily prefer undercooked fried eggs that they consume quite frequently

In Portugal, fried eggs are very often served on top of a steak (bitoque) or a meat and cheese sandwich (francesinha), usually alongside fries. Culinary speaking, there is a proper way to eat a fried egg that involves dipping bread (that is often present at Portuguese tables during meals) or fries in the yolk as the dish arrives at the table. A fried egg with solid yolk is usually considered to be unproperly cooked. Eating a fried egg is linked to a particular experience of tasting food, where the runny egg is employed as a dipping sauce, turning the dish less dry. However, this practice may increase the risk of food-borne illness.

Unrefrigerated storage and poor hygiene after handling are also common practices

Some consumers report not keeping their eggs in the refrigerator. This practice is more common for backyard eggs than for store-bought eggs, likely based on a belief that backyard eggs should be stored at room temperature. About a third of consumers touch raw eggs with their bare hands as they store them, and a similar proportion is unlikely to wash their hands after handling eggs during storage or preparation.

Food safety interventions should promote the use of eggs with a low probability of being contaminated.

As buying uncontaminated eggs reduces the need for safety practices during further handling steps, interventions should focus on promoting the use of uncontaminated eggs, especially for common raw or undercooked dishes, like fried eggs and desserts. Pasteurized eggs are the safest option but are still not widely available and are unknown to many consumers. Yet, store-bought eggs are widely available and still provide better safety conditions than backyard eggs due to regulations imposed on production processes.

“However, the adoption of safer practices can easily compete with other health concerns like antibiotics in industrial animal production, established food gifting practices within family networks, or more pressing daily concerns, like having a family meal ready on time or avoiding food waste. Interventions to promote safer egg handling practices can thus be more effective if informed by an understanding of consumers’ practices in their cultural, material, and social contexts” says Monica Truninger, who is sociologist and co-author of the manuscript describing the study and its findings. Such interventions should go beyond informing consumers with correct practice and instead focus on ways to change the egg provisioning system to supply safe and quality eggs:

  • promote the use of pasteurized eggs in simple and convenient recipes via tastemakers (such as TV chefs, bloggers, etc);
  • attach meanings of health and safety to pasteurized eggs;
  • circulate information on how to handle safely backyard eggs to avoid food-borne illness;
  • design storage equipment with built-in sections for backyard eggs to remind consumers of the importance of keeping those eggs at the correct temperature;
  • include tips on egg handling safely in cookery books and recipes found in social media.

Details can be found in the manuscript:

Luís Junqueira, Mónica Truninger, Valérie L. Almli, Vânia Ferreira, Rui Leandro Maia, Paula Teixeira. 2022. Self-reported practices by Portuguese consumers regarding eggs’ safety: An analysis based on critical consumer handling points, Food Control, 133: 108635,