It may have taken seven years, but the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will soon require that no egg may be warmer than 45 degrees Fahrenheit from the time it leaves the hen until you place it in a shopping cart. And in case people consider storing eggs on the kitchen counter, in the living room, or under the bed, once the rule becomes final in August 1999, all cartons containing fresh eggs will come with a warning label demanding that consumers keep their eggs refrigerated.

Don't bash bureaucrats for creating such a seemingly silly rule. Congress, egged on by commercial poultry producers, called for the regulation as part of a 1991 egg inspection bill. And even under Republican leadership, Congress has continued its push, threatening to cut $5 million from the FSIS's budget unless it issued the regulations.

Yet there are cracks in the egghead coalition. Hard-boiled food safety advocates maintain that the feds should be more concerned about monitoring the temperature of the yolk rather than the shell; such regulations would necessitate additional testing which, says United Egg Senior Vice President Gene Gregory, would cost 3 cents an egg and could delay the sale of fresh eggs by as much as two weeks. And Jill Snowden, director of the Egg Nutrition Center, an industry group, accuses regulators of overstating the number of egg-related illnesses: For instance, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association estimates the typical consumer would have to eat five eggs a week for 77 years before ingesting a single contaminated egg.