Steve Chapman

But that's less than it sounds, and in recent years, the problem has steadily declined. Experts estimate that in normal times, the incidence of salmonella is about one in every 10,000 eggs, which means the average person can expect to eat one about once every 40 years.

Even without a federal recall in this outbreak, fewer than one in every 100 eggs would be tainted. It's a level of risk that doesn't cry out for new legions of federal bureaucrats to gallop to the rescue.

Also worth keeping in mind is that the rare encounter with a bad egg need not be unpleasant. For years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has advised consumers to cook all eggs thoroughly and avoid foods (Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing) that use raw eggs. Follow those instructions, and you are exempt from harm. Skip them, and you're still pretty safe.

Those consumers who want to be extra-vigilant have another option: pasteurized eggs, in or out of the shell. Widely available in grocery stores, they can be eaten undercooked or raw with impunity.

Most people, however, don't see the need to go an extra mile to eliminate a hazard that is already so small as to be invisible. Why should Washington try to impose a level of safety that buyers can already select for themselves if they feel the need?

Given the chance, the market offers options. Some people would prefer slightly lower prices and a slightly higher risk. Some would pay more to get greater peace of mind. Stricter federal rules may eliminate choices that some competent adults would prefer.

A moment of alarm, however, can be used to justify legislation that may impose unseen costs without solving the problem. That's reason to question any new powers sought by regulators. Granting those powers is as easy as scrambling an egg. Unscrambling is a lot harder.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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