We’ve all done it before: you’re baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies and you simply cannot resist popping a ball of uncooked cookie dough into your mouth. While many of us are taught this is dangerous due to the raw eggs and the associated risk from Salmonella, the FDA is warning consumers that eating the uncooked flour within dough holds another danger consumers should consider.
“Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” Leslie Smoot, Ph.D., a senior advisor in FDA’s Office of Food Safety and a specialist in the microbiological safety of processed foods, said in an article. “So if an animal heeds the call of nature in the field, bacteria from the animal waste could contaminate the grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour.”
Common “kill steps” applied during food preparation and/or processing (so-called because they kill bacteria that cause infections) include boiling, baking, roasting, microwaving, and frying. But when it comes to eating raw dough, no kill step has been used.
A real-world example of a foodborne illness outbreak associated with flour was recently investigated as dozens of people across the country were sickened by a strain of bacteria called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121. From the FDA’s investigation, they were able to link bacteria in a flour sample to bacteria from people who had become ill. Since then millions of pounds of flour have been recalled, which were sold under several different brand names.
And it’s not just raw cookie dough that you should avoid. Other uncooked dough or batter — including those used to make bread, pizza or tortillas — could make you sick. The FDA is also telling parents to not let children play with homemade clay in which uncooked flour is an ingredient.
Common symptoms for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are diarrhea (often bloody) and abdominal cramps. Most of these illnesses last a week, but severe cases can last much longer and can result in a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS can occur in people of any age, but is most common in young children under 5 years, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems, the article explains.
Parents of young children should be particularly aware. For instance, if your child is in daycare or kindergarten, a common pastime may be art using homemade clay or playdough that is homemade from raw flour. Even if they’re not directly eating the dough, they’re often putting their hands in their mouth after handling the dough.
For more information and to read the FDA‘s tips for safe food handling, click here.