Raw eggs ring alarm

For Silo owners Leanne Gray and Graham Hudson, the salmonella outbreak that closed the cafe for two days a fortnight ago came with an odd coincidence. Only the week before, their 20-year-old daughter, holidaying in Peru, had had a brush with food poisoning.

''It was just horrible, and it was very upsetting for Graham and I,'' Gray said of the salmonella news. ''Our daughter is in South America at present. She got food poisoning last week and was on an IV drip for two days. And we thought, 'oh my goodness, somebody's else daughter or somebody's else's child has been hurt as well'.''

Hudson and Gray moved quickly to open their doors again, but not without some changes. About 22 people are thought to have been affected (including six hospitalised), the salmonella possibly from mayonnaise made with free-range eggs, although ACT Health still hasn't established this for sure, so Silo has stopped making mayonnaise for counter sandwiches. It will still make mayonnaise for dishes where it can be kept in the fridge. Silo has also changed its egg supplier.

Last week, four of the affected people were considering taking legal action, to claim expenses, loss of wages, and pain and suffering. State practice group leader for Slater and Gordon Gerard Rees was awaiting instructions from the four and for the final report from ACT Health, before determining whether a claim of negligence could be taken, on the basis that Silo knew or ought to have known of the likely salmonella outcome from eating raw egg.

''Silo is a very good cafe, as a general position it is a very popular cafe,'' Rees said. ''This is the first time I've heard of a complaint of any kind involving them, so it's not something against Silo - it's just something that has occurred ... If someone goes into a restaurant or cafe they're entitled to have food that's of an accepted standard and if they do suffer injury as a result, they're entitled to make a claim.'' Slater and Gordon would run the case on a no-win, no-fee basis.

When a restaurant with the reputation of Silo is named as the source of a salmonella outbreak, Canberra's restaurateurs take a keen interest. ''It sent shivers up my spine, to be honest,'' chef Christian Hauberg says. ''It's the worst nightmare that people get sick from your food. But unfortunately with food-borne illnesses, you've got no idea if the product is contaminated when it comes in - you can't tell by looking at it.'' Hauberg, from Pulp Kitchen, uses caged eggs in mayonnaise because he believes it reduces the risk of salmonella. ''I assume they're safer,'' he says, partly because free-range eggs might not be collected and refrigerated as quickly. He uses free-range eggs in cooked dishes.

Silo co-owner Graham Hudson says the cafe was getting 20 boxes of eggs a week, each containing 180 eggs, and because free-range suppliers couldn't deliver often enough, it used a commerical supplier for some. The cafe was getting back on its feet last week, but Hudson says the outbreak put a dent in sales, including Christmas cakes and the like. ''A whole week of our lives and business went down a hole,'' he says. Big commercial producers sanitise their eggs, using chlorine baths.

Australian National University professor of infectious diseases and microbiology Peter Collignon says sanitising the shell would presumably substantially lower the risk, since most contamination comes from the outside of the egg, but it wouldn't deal with cases where salmonella is inside. There is no way of telling whether a chicken is carrying salmonella, and not enough data to indicate whether caged, free-range or organic chickens are more or less likely to have it, he says, advising not to eat raw or runny-yolk eggs. When he eats mayonnaise, it comes in a jar from the supermarket. When he fries an egg, he flips it to cook both sides. He believes restaurants should warn people when food is made from raw eggs.

''Any egg, whether it's commercial or free range, can be an issue,'' he says. ''My view is whatever egg I get from whatever source, it's too hard to know, so I cook it.''

Salmonella is a coliform in the bowels of animals like chickens and pigs. Some strains may not cause disease, but others can be aggressive, he says, pointing to the ''attack rate'' in the Silo case, where about one-third were hospitalised. He insists salmonella is a real risk that should not be downplayed. It can even be fatal, although usually only in people with compromised immune systems. ''If people just had a bit of diarrhoea for a couple of days and that was it, this wouldn't be the big deal that it is internationally,'' he says. ''But we know some people get very sick and some people unfortunately die from it.''

As to backyard chickens, Collignon says there is no way of telling whether your chickens are affected. They can pick it up from wild animals, including other birds, from scraps of meat in their food, or at birth. Asked whether exposing children through backyard chooks might protect them, Collignon says it's true that the more bugs you are exposed to as children, the more immunity you get, but ''the downside is there's a lot of children who come to grief during that process''. He urges handwashing as the key.

Leanne Gray says officials have since advised buying commercial mayonnaise or using pasteurised eggs. Her response: ''That's the foulest thing you've ever seen, so I said no, I won't.'' Nor would they bleach eggs.

At Dieici e Mezzo and the National Gallery, James Kidman says he will continue using raw eggs and runny-yolk eggs, with strict procedures - produce is delivered in refrigerated vans and probed on arrival to check temperatures. Sandwiches are refrigerated, hand washing is stressed, and he goes so far as to keep a sample of dish served at a function for a month afterwards. He also visits producers.

''As long as you've got the right procedures in place, you follow those procedures and your chefs are aware, you're probably at a very, very low risk,'' he says.

At Rubicon, Owen Kenyon says he uses free-range eggs and will continue using them, including in mayonnaise. He relies on a reputable egg supplier and sometimes uses eggs from his own backyard chooks in the restaurant. ''We're pretty stringent in management of turnover and making sure things are kept at the right temperatures, that's our profession, that's what we do,'' he says. ''We take the hygiene very, very seriously.''

Australian Egg Corporation food safety consultant Dr Peter Scott says Australia, unlike the United States and Asia, doesn't have the strain of salmonella that is embedded in the egg itself, so contamination occurs when salmonella in chook poo invades the egg through the shell. A clean egg has its own defences - the external cuticle, the shell, and an internal membrane. Washing can make it easier for bugs to penetrate the shell because it destroys the membrane, so should only be done with strict controls of the sanitiser (usually chlorine), and water pH and temperature. In Australia, almost all poisoning from eggs comes from cracked or dirty eggs, which usually come from smaller producers, because large producers have strict washing in place and can use cracked or dirty eggs for pulping and pasteurisation. Scott says the egg industry is moving to make pulped and pastuerised eggs available in one and two-litre packs for home use.