Millions of eggs from the Iowa farms at the heart of a massive salmonella recall are not destined for the garbage but for a table near you.
The recalled eggs that were already shipped to grocery stores and restaurants are being dumped by the truckload. But the eggs still being laid by potentially infected chickens will be pasteurized to kill any bacteria. Then they can be sold as liquid eggs or put in other products such as mayonnaise or ice cream.
It's a common if little-known practice in the food industry — salvaging and selling products that may have been tainted with disease.
After pasteurization, the bacteria "are all going to be dead, and if they're dead, they're not going to hurt anybody," said University of Illinois food science professor Bruce Chassy.
Officials from the two farms that have recalled more than a half-billion eggs said Wednesday there's no reason not to use the eggs while federal officials investigate the outbreak.
Wright Egg Farms and Hillandale Farms issued the recall after learning that salmonella may have sickened as many as 1,300 people.
Spokeswomen for the farms said their hens are still laying millions of eggs every day. Those eggs are being sent to facilities where their shells are broken and the contents pasteurized — a process that involves applying high heat without cooking the eggs.
Hillandale Farms spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said the operation has 2 million birds that lay an egg about every 26 hours.
"It's close to 2 million eggs a day," she said.
Chassy said there's no reason the eggs — even from infected hens — cannot be safely sold if they are pasteurized or cooked. Doing so raises the temperature of the eggs high enough to eliminate most if not all salmonella.
Both companies said they are waiting to hear from the Food and Drug Administration before deciding what, if anything, to do with their hens.
The FDA cannot order the farms to kill hens that may be infected with salmonella, but the farms could decide to do that on their own. Neither would discuss that possibility.
"There's no reason at this time," Wright County Egg spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell said. "We're still in the middle of testing and investigation."
Said Hillandale's DeYoung: "We certainly intend to comply with whatever suggestions they make. And until such time that investigation is complete, it would be premature to speculate on what those steps might be."
She would not say whether the hens could wind up being used for meat — common practice for egg-laying hens once they pass about 18 months of age and become less productive.
A similar process has been used to salvage other raw products tainted with bacteria. Ground beef found to contain E. coli bacteria, for instance, is sometimes diverted for use in precooked products such as frozen meatballs, said Don Schaffner, a professor and microbiologist at Rutgers University.
Tainted meat could also wind up being used in canned soup, he said.
Because the farms involved in the recall have so many hens, Schaffner said, "it would be a catastrophic waste if these hens were not going to be used in some way in the food supply."
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that it's fine for meat and eggs tainted with salmonella to be eaten once they are properly cooked.
But he does not think food producers like the farms involved in the egg recall should be able to decide for themselves whether to recall products or whether to kill their birds to stop further spread of salmonella.
The FDA "needs more authority," Gurian-Sherman said. "They need mandatory recall authority so a company can't fiddle while Rome is burning. They need more inspectors. They need to be able to make changes in production processes where consumer health is threatened."
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg this week called on Congress to adopt legislation stalled since last year that would allow the FDA to order recalls and give the agency more access to company records.