CHICAGO – Eggs sunny-side-up are still on the menu. But restaurants nationwide are keeping a closer eye on egg suppliers and reminding diners of the dangers of undercooked food after a massive recall tied to a salmonella outbreak.
"If someone asks for eggs over-easy, what do you do, put a skull and crossbones on their table?" said Louis Tricoli, who owns three Wisconsin restaurants with his family, including one where nearly two dozen people were sickened in late June after likely eating the now-recalled eggs. "Undercooked beef, undercooked pork, chicken, eggs, anything you ask to be undercooked, it's at your own risk."
And so, instead of taking eggs off the menu, many restaurateurs are relying on long-standing menu warnings about the dangers of eating undercooked food. And waitstaffs are fielding questions from concerned guests worried that what they're being served may not be safe.
At Atlanta's West Egg Cafe, business was brisk last weekend when customers chowed through nearly 2,900 eggs over the course of three days. Still, some diners made sure to ask whether the eggs were safe, said Chef Patric Bell. The restaurant's eggs weren't affected by the recall and he said so far no one was changing their breakfast orders.
"If I couldn't get eggs that were safe, I wouldn't serve them at all," he said.
Two Iowa farms, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, recalled about 550 million eggs last week after learning that salmonella may have sickened as many as 1,300 people.
But outside of such outbreaks, salmonella is always occasionally present in the roughly 80 billion eggs sold in their shell in the U.S. each year. The harmful bacteria typically contaminate one out of every 10,000 to 20,000 eggs.
That risk is always there for people who like eggs that aren't cooked until the yolks are solid, said Benjamin Chapman, an assistant professor specializing in food safety at North Carolina State University. "It's difficult to say if the risk is any different than it was two weeks ago or two years ago."
Restaurants can sometimes be breeding grounds for outbreaks if they crack many eggs into a single container when preparing them, which could allow one bad egg to contaminate a whole batch.
The recall isn't enough to scare off Charles Mettler, who ordered an eggs Benedict on Tuesday when he stopped by Drake Diner's in Des Moines, Iowa.
"I'm probably more worried about the Hollandaise sauce as far as cholesterol," Mettler said.
A spokesman for the National Restaurant Association said he hadn't heard of any restaurants dropping eggs from the menu entirely, or switching to pasteurized eggs, which are unshelled eggs heated to kill bacteria. They can also generally only be scrambled or used as an ingredient.
But about a dozen major restaurant chains and many individual restaurants contacted by The Associated Press said they're monitoring the outbreak that's sickened about 1,300 people so far.
The number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to increase.
Late last week, as news the recall linked to two Iowa farms erupted, executives at Waffle House sent reminders to each of their 1,600 locations reminding staff about the importance of thoroughly cooking eggs, though it's still serving them to order. The company said 28 of its restaurants had to destroy egg shipments because of the recall.
At Denny's Corp., where 33 restaurants received recalled eggs, officials are careful to remind customers of their menu warning: "Eggs served over-easy, poached, sunny side-up and soft-boiled may be undercooked and will only be served at the customers' request."
Restaurants need to store eggs below 45 degrees in order to slow growth of salmonella, Chapman said. They also should cook them past the 145-degree mark, when yolks are no longer runny.
That may not have been enough to protect Tricoli's Baker Street restaurant in Kenosha, Wis.
Since customers became ill during a weekend in late June, business is down by half at the restaurant he owns with his family. While investigators worked to figure out the source of the outbreak, he shut down for a week and threw out more than 1,400 eggs along with other ingredients before public health officials traced the source of the bacteria.
"We were cautious from the get-go," said Tricoli, who's now facing at least five lawsuits. "We run a clean restaurant, there's nothing to change."