Professor Lisa Ackerley, Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, explains how to use eggs safely and what consumers and catering professionals need to be aware of when cooking eggs.

The Food Standards Agency announcement in 2017 that, provided they meet British Lion standards, runny eggs can now be eaten by vulnerable groups, was the culmination of 20 years’ work by the British egg industry. Through the Lion Quality Code of Practice, the industry created a world-leading food safety scheme and tackled the issue of salmonella in eggs.

In the late 1980s, a sudden increase in Salmonella enteritidis outbreaks associated with eggs meant that Government and the egg industry needed to take action for public health. Following the Health Minister’s announcement of the risks associated with eggs, the public no longer had trust in eggs, and the runny egg and soldier, a British favourite, was no longer on the breakfast menu.

In response, the egg industry invested more than £4m every year to overhaul the sector, putting together a code of controls and a scheme which included the compulsory vaccination of laying flocks. This was the birth of the Lion Code, characterised by the red Lion stamped on every egg in the scheme for customer assurance.

The code included:

  • All Lion hens and eggs guaranteed British
  • Flocks vaccinated against Salmonella
  • Independent auditing, including unannounced audits to ISO 17065 (>700 audit points)
  • Registration and a unique 'passport' system, ensuring complete traceability of hens, eggs and feed
  • Eggs stamped on farm with the farm code and production method
  • Best-before date and Lion Quality mark on egg shell as well as on egg box
  • Stringent feed controls, including production of feed to Universal Feed Assurance Scheme (UFAS) standards
  • Increased hygiene controls and salmonella testing on farm, in excess of the National Control Programme, including turnaround swabbing
  • Regular egg testing
  • Cool chain from farm to packing centre to retailer

Consumer awareness campaigns disseminated information about the new Code and confidence improved. However, the Department of Health and subsequently the Food Standards Agency (FSA) remained cautious in relation to runny eggs and vulnerable groups, with the advice for them that eggs should be cooked all the way through. In catering, advice was usually given that business should err on the side of caution too, and serve eggs cooked to 75 °C or above, or to use pasteurised eggs where a raw or undercooked egg was needed for the nature of the dish (mousses, tiramisu etc). By the way, it is possible to get runny scrambled eggs if you cook really slowly, keep stirring and cook to temperature – I have tried this out.

Over time, the incidence of S. enteritidis decreased and by 2004, the FSA said that the risk of Salmonella from UK-produced eggs purchased from shops was very low indeed and significantly lower than in the 1990s. The story was not the same for imported eggs, which were still causing outbreaks, and this is still the case, for example, an international outbreak associated with Polish eggs.

Following an assessment in 2016 by the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, the FSA issued new advice in 2017 on runny eggs stating that infants, children, pregnant women and elderly people could now eat a lightly cooked egg if it were from a Lion or demonstrably equivalent scheme (these are not identified at time of writing).  

It is important that everyone realises that the advice only applies to Lion eggs, and there is a risk from eating undercooked eggs from other countries, and even UK eggs that are not Lion. Duck eggs are not included in the scheme, as it only applies to hen eggs.

It’s not just microbiological hazards that are protected by the Lion code – in addition, with more than 700 auditable points, examination of traceability, storage and chemical use will also be determined. There were also widely-reported issues with Fipronil, an insecticide, contaminating eggs. This biocide is not for use on food products and although the risk to humans was in fact low, its presence in eggs led to a number of recalls, not just of shell eggs, but also foods made with egg products processed from contaminated eggs.

This leads on to the issue of pasteurised egg products which are used in manufacturing and catering. If you start off with a chemically contaminated product, the processing will not remove it. If you start off with a high microbial load, pasteurisation may not be effective, because it does not sterilise the product. There have been some cases of ineffective pasteurisation where Salmonella was found in the product.

This is why the British Egg Industry Council also has a complementary Code of Practice covering egg products, so that the assurance of the Lion can be given for these foods too. Those manufacturing foods containing egg can have the reassurance of safety.

Every scheme may at some time have a vulnerability, and in 2019 there was an outbreak associated with Lion eggs. It was quickly investigated and brought under control through suspension of flocks and quarantine of eggs. A revision of the Code was made to enhance testing and auditing, welfare and training.

I have been involved in creating a new Caterers’ Guide with the British Egg Industry Council to explain the importance of using Lion eggs if businesses wish to make undercooked egg dishes. Catering businesses using eggs will need to demonstrate in their Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) how they control the hazard of Salmonella from eggs. This would be either by using Lion eggs, by using pasteurised eggs or cooking every egg and egg dish to more than 75°C. Businesses also need to be aware that failure to control hazards, or even to follow their own FSMS could potentially lead to a poor Food Hygiene Rating (FHR).

Travellers abroad also need to be aware of the risks from eggs, as other countries will not have the benefit of this scheme, so those who are vulnerable should avoid runny eggs or undercooked egg dishes while travelling or on holiday.

There have been a number of incidents where non-UK eggs are packed in the UK and have a UK packing number on the box, so it pays to be aware of this when purchasing and receiving eggs in catering businesses. Make sure you always check the box for the Lion mark. If there is no Lion mark on the egg, it’s not a Lion egg.

At the time of writing, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been reported shortages of eggs. In normal circumstances all eggs sold in supermarkets are produced to Lion standards. Currently this may not be the case, so it is vital that vulnerable groups carefully check the eggs they are using as they may not be produced to Lion standards and could pose a risk to vulnerable people who fail to recognise that they are non-Lion and don’t cook them properly.

British Lion Eggs is a Corporate Member of the RSPH.