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Is It Safe to Eat Runny Eggs, or Are You Risking Food Poisoning?

Your favorite breakfast might come with some risks.
Runny eggs on a plate
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Runny eggs are the ultimate Instagrammable photo opp. Scroll social media, and you’ll see tons of people popping open yolks and dipping in pieces of toast to sop up all that liquid gold.

But is this breakfast staple actually safe to eat?

The question arises due to the very thing that makes over-easy, poached, sunny-side up, or soft-boiled eggs so delectable: that river of yolk. For these dishes, the proper culinary technique is to partially cook them so that the rich center remains runny. This puts those eggs at odds with the most common food safety guidelines, which require you to fully prepare ingredients like meat, poultry, and seafood to an internal temperature high enough to kill off bacteria and other germs.

To reduce the risk of a gnarly foodborne illness, many of us follow these “cook thoroughly” recs to a T when roasting a chicken or grilling pork. But for some reason, we don’t always bring that same energy to some other foods, like raw oysters or, yep, those yolky delights.

Heck, I still slurp down raw oysters even though I know it can be risky. But eggs give me a little more pause, mainly because I eat them so frequently: I scarf down bagel sandwiches with a jammy eggy center at least a couple of times a week.

So I connected with a food safety expert to get the intel on whether or not I should continue to sop up my runny egg yolks with crunchy bacon strips. Here’s what I found out.

Is it safe to eat runny eggs?

Here’s what to know: Birds can carry salmonella bacteria, and those icky germs can spread from the chickens to the inside and outer shells of their eggs. So when you eat a runny yolk that also happens to be contaminated with salmonella, you can get sick, Wade Syers, MS, a food safety specialist at Michigan State University Extension, tells SELF.

The main thing to know about a salmonella infection is that it’s not fun—and it could be serious, says Syers. Symptoms usually begin within six hours to six days after ingesting the bug, and can include diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and stomach cramps. In severe cases, illness can require hospitalization, he says. This risk is higher for young children, adults 65 years and older, and people with compromised immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You may be surprised by how many people salmonella affects each year. The bacteria causes about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the US annually, the CDC says. While we can’t link all salmonella infections to eggs, the CDC does list food in general as the source of most of those illnesses.

So is buying pasteurized eggs the solution?

Not exactly. Pasteurization is a process that involves heating eggs to a high enough temperature to kill salmonella, according to the CDC. This destroys the bacteria that live on the inside and outside of the shell. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually requires all eggs sold in grocery stores to be processed this way. You’ll know if your eggs are pasteurized because they’ll carry a USDA label.

But that doesn’t eliminate the salmonella risk completely, Syers says. During the transportation process from farms to the stores after pasteurization, the shells can crack and bacteria can seep into them. So when you eat undercooked eggs, you can still become ill if you’re preparing contaminated ones, he says.

What are the chances of getting sick from runny eggs?

Let’s start with the facts. According to researchers from the USDA, an estimated one out of every 20,000 eggs may contain salmonella. While that doesn’t sound like that high of a number, it’s important to recognize that the US produces about 113 billion eggs annually, according to the USDA. So if you do the math, that means that each year, more than 5 million eggs sold in the US are most likely contaminated, says Syers.

And yes, we’re aware that the probability of one of them hitting your breakfast plate might not seem that high. Still, if you fall into the population that has a steeper chance of getting sick from salmonella, you may want to make sure your eggs are fully cooked before digging in, Syers advises.

What’s the safest way to eat eggs?

First, follow these tips when buying eggs to make sure you’re not taking home any contaminated products:

  • Purchase your eggs from refrigerated sections. If the temperature of your eggs reaches above 40 °F, they can spoil and make you sick (yes, even if they’re pasteurized).
  • Check your cartons to make sure none of the egg shells accidentally cracked. If there are breaks, then bacteria can seep in.

Then you need to think about prep. The easiest way to avoid getting sick is to cook your eggs to 160° F, says Syers. So, yes, that might mean runny eggs are off the table if you’re trying to reduce your health risks.

Luckily, there are many tasty preparations for fully cooked eggs, so you definitely don’t have to give them up entirely. For example, try baking them into a frittata or flipping them into an omelet.

If the texture is the main thing you love about runny eggs, try adding some cheese or melting in some butter to get that soft and delicate taste. Ultimately, though, the choice is yours. As for me, I think I’ll mostly stick to the scrambled version—and maybe enjoy them runny every once in a while—to save myself any potential run-ins with salmonella.