Don’t waste time with arsenic or hemlock next time you feel like killing a neighbor. You can get the same results serving them a tart, delicious slice of Key lime pie. Just make sure to include raw eggs like Grandma used to do.
Eggs have long been a key ingredient in Key lime pie. We believe sponge fisherman used pelican, turtle and wild bird eggs in some of the earliest versions of the dessert, and nearly every recipe I’ve seen published up until the start of the 21st century includes eggs. No-bake recipes, often called “ice box pies” before modern refrigeration was introduced, were popular in the South because they were simple to make and didn’t involve using a hot oven in the summer heat. The recipes used raw eggs and nobody was getting sick from them, but that was then, this is now. Things started to change with the spread of Salmonella enteritidis from the chicken—to the chicken’s egg.
Simply put, Salmonella is a bacterium that makes people sick. According to a 2010 New York Times article, it mysteriously began to appear in chicken eggs in many countries at about the same time in the late 1970s. People infected with the bacteria usually experience fever, stomach cramps, and frequent trips to the bathroom for four to seven days. In most cases, people recover without treatment, but in some instances the bathroom part can be so severe that the patient requires hospitalization. If you are really old, really young, or have an impaired immune system, salmonellosis can kill you.
I discuss eggs with local home bakers in the Florida Keys more than I care to admit, and two arguments that often come up in favor of raw eggs in Key lime pie are 1) the acidity of the limes kills all the bacteria, and 2) “I’ve been putting raw eggs in my pies my entire life and I’ve never been sick.” Chad Bailey is the Florida Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence Liaison with the Florida Department of Health, so I reached out to him to see what our risks really are.
According to Mr. Bailey, acid from Key limes does have antimicrobial properties, just not in sufficient strength to kill all bacterial pathogens. Acidic lime juice is unfavorable to the growth of most microbes, though it doesn’t kill them directly. He further explains that the USDA does not recommend eating raw shell eggs that are not cooked or undercooked, since there is a possibility that Salmonella bacteria may be present. The internal temperature of any cooked product using raw eggs, including meringue, should reach 160°F. As an alternative, pasteurized egg products can be substituted in no-bake recipes such as Key lime pie.
The Florida Morbidity Statistics Report Mr. Bailey provided shows 6,557 Salmonella cases in our state in 2017. Of those cases, 1680 people were hospitalized, and 32 people died. Morbidity rates in Monroe County were higher than state averages, and 38 Salmonella cases were reported in the Florida Keys.
So what does it all mean? The chances of killing someone by serving raw eggs in Key lime pie are slim, but it is entirely possible, especially if an infected egg is consumed by the elderly, infants, or those with compromised immune systems. Salmonella risks are easily eliminated with heat or pasteurized egg products and a little effort can go a long way. The bottom line is that staying true to a family tradition is admirable, but when it comes to raw eggs, it’s simply not worth the risk. Grandma will forgive you. Besides, who wants to be remembered as the person who killed their neighbor with a slice of Key lime pie?
Love & Limes.