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One of the great pleasures of baking cookies is eating the raw dough. People love to eat it once the ingredients are all in, whether make from scratch, spooned out of those school fundraiser frozen tubs, or sliced from a refrigerated Pillsbury Ready To Bake package. Some people purchase the latter two items and never bother turning on the oven. The joy of consuming raw dough – particularly for chocolate chip cookies – is why items with cookie dough, like ice cream, have become so popular. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others warning people that consuming dough now is a No-No, whether for cookies or anything else.
While the packages have long contained warnings not to eat the raw dough (even though commercial cookie dough products are typically treated to kill bacteria these days), the cause for alarm now is far greater right now for those making batters from scratch. Those who indulge in homemade dough preparation have long known there is a potential health issue from the eggs. But, a new concern raising alarm bells involves the flour and the E.coli virus.
The government has reported that 38 people in 20 different states have become ill, including more than 10 who were hospitalized, reportedly from eating any raw dough, for cookies, tortillas, cakes and other purposes. The source has been traced to flour products produced last fall by General Mills that have been linked to Shiga toxin-producing (STEC) E. coli O121.
Accordingly, General Mills announced on Friday, July 1, a voluntary recall of 10 million pounds of flour made under its Gold Medal, Wondra, and Signature Kitchens brands. The varieties include all-purpose, unbleached, and self-rising flours.
The FDA cautions, however, that the issue with contaminated flour can be broader than just a General Mills issue. “Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” according to the FDA’s Leslie Smoot, Ph.D., a senior advisor in the organization’s Office of Food Safety who is a specialist in processed foods’ microbiological safety. If an animal defecates in the field, the bacteria in the animal’s waste could contaminate the grain that is to be harvested and made into flour.
Gluten-free dough made from rice flour or chickpea flour are not any safer. Rice and chickpeas are also crops that can be affected by animal waste products. So, dough from those sources should not be eaten raw either.
The various methods of cooking things with flour normally kill any bacteria. These include baking, roasting, boiling, frying, and microwaving. Flour used in cookie dough for ice cream and candies is heat-treated to make it safe before being put in the dough.
Even the flour used in some refrigerated ready-to-bake dough is heated to kill bacteria ahead of time. Nestle began using heat-treated flour for its refrigerated Toll House cookie dough in 2010, after 77 people in 30 states the previous year were sickened by an E.coli strain that wound up in their dough. Pillsbury uses heated flour currently too, but still recommends customers not eat it raw.
The upshot is to check the recall information on the FDA and General Mills sites to see if any flour at home, which may not be in the effected batches even if made under those brands. But, know that the problem exists and why to avoid eating homemade or untreated dough. While Pillsbury does not condone eating its cookie dough, the heat-treated ones (and ice cream bits) are not as much of a No-No as dough made by hand.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Raw Dough’s a Raw Deal and Could Make You Sick
Food Safety News: General Mills expands flour recall after more illnesses are reported
Washington Post: You should never eat cookie dough — period.
Forbes: Is It Safe To Eat Raw Cookie Dough? It Depends
Photo of “Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies,” courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman from Lubbock, TX – Creative Commons license