Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Karen Yamaoka, owner and operator of Karen's Kitchen
in Kakaako, served up an order of loco moco yesterday.

New regulations
on eggs won’t
go over easy

Some isle consumers feel
nobody, even the FDA, better
lay a finger on their loco moco

By Rod Antone
Star Bulletin

No runny eggs for the loco moco. You're yolking right?

Not according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Come Sept. 4, egg cartons will be required to be sold in supermarkets with the following safe handling statement: "To prevent illness from bacteria: keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly."

The news caught local restaurant owners by surprise, though a majority said they were already trying to set an eggs-ample for their customers.

"I always tell them when they order take out loco moco, 'You're going to eat it right away yeah?'" said Karen Yamaoka, owner of Karen's Kitchen on Cooke Street.

For the non-loco moco eater, the dish is one part rice, two parts hamburger patty, two parts egg and smothered in brown gravy. The problem is Yamaoka said, is that many customers like the yolk nice and runny to mix with the gravy.

"I'm paranoid about the eggs, because I've heard about so many people getting sick, about eggs not cooked, I don't want that to happen."

FDA Commissioner Jane Henney says the "Safe Egg" regulations are meant to warn consumers about the spread of salmonella enteritidis, which infects about one out of every 20,000 eggs produced in the United States and causes illnesses among an estimated 1.4 million people a year.

And what that means for consumers, she says, is "you just need to cook your eggs thoroughly -- no sunny-side up, no over easy. This is a case when it's better to be safe than sorry."

FDA officials said they expect that most large restaurant chains will no longer cook eggs sunny-side up or over easy once the warning labels appear because of liability issues. Enforcement though, if any, will be left up to states.

"It's difficult to enforce, we can't be there all the time when they're cooking," said state Environmental Health Services Division chief Jerry Haruno, who adds that Hawaii will likely follow the federal government's lead and let egg servers scramble to find their own solution.

"That's always been the recommendation, but there's hasn't been any type of enforcement before," said Haruno. "It doesn't really change anything. Maybe for the restaurants, but not for the Department of Health."

Dwight Wong, general manager for Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch and Crab restaurant, said, "To try and monitor that would be a nightmare, I think it's going to be a touchy situation for the industry."

Wong said the restaurant's "egg policy" could go either way, with the restaurant warning customers about the federal guidelines and then allowing them to order what they want, to not giving them a choice at all.

"We could say, 'It's either scrambled, well done, or choose something else on the menu,'" Wong said. "We'll have to talk to our owners to see if what kind of policy we want."

Denny's, a restaurant chain with 1,800 establishments nationwide offering "the original grand slam" breakfast 24 hours a day, says it still will leave it up to customers to decide how they want their eggs cooked.

The chain publishes consumer advisories on its menus saying it will fully cook all foods unless told otherwise.

But if customers want their eggs over easy, "we will continue to offer customers a choice," said Denny's spokes-woman Debby Atkins.

The FDA has a goal to reduce salmonella outbreaks by 50 percent by 2005, and is considering regulations that would for the first time set sanitary standards for egg farms.

The egg regulation will cost the industry $56 million to implement this year, and $10 million annually for new equipment and warning labels, but is expected to save $260 million a year in health bills, the agency says.

Lou Carson, the FDA's deputy director for food safety, said it's up to individuals to decide how they want their eggs cooked at home, and those who have fond memories of their sunny-side-ups can buy pasteurized eggs, which cost about three cents an egg more. Like pasteurization for milk, the process involves heating the egg to 161 degrees to kill the bacteria.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the FDA regulations are long overdue. Salmonella enteritidis first appeared 20 years ago, "and we think the FDA has acted belatedly to address the problems with eggs."

"It's fundamentally a different egg than when today's cooks grew up," she said. "Eating eggs that aren't thoroughly cooked is now a risky approach. People should eat their eggs that are only cooked through and through."

Kenneth Klippen, vice president of United Egg Producers, said he's still going to enjoy his eggs "over easy, medium."

"You don't have to cook them until they are hard like hockey pucks, just until they are settled," he said.

Klippen says the industry supports the refrigeration regulations, but is concerned about consumer reaction when the labels appear on the top of egg cartons.

He said consumers should become more alert to food safety issues, and poultry farmers are doing more to reduce contamination on the farm, where salmonella is spread by rodents and wild birds.

But even with all these warnings against uncooked yolk, the bottom line for many eggsperts is, if you can't order your eggs your way, why order them at all?

"I don't like scrambled eggs. I order it sunny-side up or over-easy," said Karen's customer Avery Chang. When asked if he would still order runny eggs if Karen's warned him about the federal regulations Chang said "Yep."

"That's why I still smoke," he said. "The government is always telling you what you can and cannot do and now they're telling you what to eat."

Scripps Howard News Service
contributed to this report.

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