Why does cookie dough make you sick?

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Why does cookie dough make you sick?

If you are in the “life is uncertain, eat dessert first” camp, then the news from the FDA that people should never eat cookie dough is likely the low point of your week.

For those who love baked goods, but do not have the patience to wait for six minutes, few things compare to that mixture of sugar, flour, eggs and butter. However, since the government has apparently fixed everything else wrong in the country, it is this week using its resources to tell us to PUT. THE. SPOON. DOWN. when it comes to nabbing a sample of cookies in their most natural state.

If you have any food safety sense, your first thought about the dangers of cookie dough likely has something to do with raw eggs. And, that would be a good first thought in most instances, but a wrong one in this case.

Here’s a quick look at what the FDA is talking about with the warning.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration took the step of reminding people that uncooked cookie dough isn’t the best thing to eat because of an ongoing outbreak of illnesses related to a strain of the E. coli bacteria.

What’s the risk in dough?  (Hint: It’s not the egg)

The FDA says the risk comes not from the ingredient many  would think – raw eggs – but instead from batches of flour contaminated with the E. coli bacteria Dozens have been sickened by the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121 after they ate raw flour. The flour was processed at a General Mills plant in Kansas City, Mo. General Mills has voluntarily recalled 10 million pounds of flour sold under the Gold Medal, Gold Medal Wondra and Signature Kitchen labels.

What is E. coli?

E. coli is a type of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Under certain circumstances, some types of the bacteria can cause intestinal infection.

Should I still be concerned about the eggs?

Within reason, and if you plan to eat them raw, you should be. Fresh eggs can contain the Salmonella  bacteria, and Salmonella can make you pretty sick. According to the Food and Drug Administration there are 79,000 cases of foodborne illness (“food poisoning”) each year in the United States. Thirty deaths each year are caused by eating eggs contaminated with Salmonella. Eggs are generally safe as long as you follow safe handling tips when buying, storing, preparing, and serving eggs, or foods that contain them, the FDA says. 

I’ve eaten plenty of cookie dough in my time and haven’t gotten sick. What’s the deal now?

First, you’ve probably been lucky on the cookie dough thing. If you eat commercially prepared cookie dough, the eggs and butter have been pasteurized – meaning it’s gone through a process that kills the bacteria. However, the flour probably hasn’t been pasteurized, leaving it vulnerable to potential contamination.

A 2009 outbreak of E. coli bacteria, which sickened 77 people, was traced back to eating raw Nestlé Toll House cookie dough. 

"We didn't conclusively implicate the flour," Karen Neil, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who investigated the outbreak, told the website  The Salt. But of all the ingredients, she says, flour seems most likely culprit since the others, save the chocolate chips, had been pasteurized.

As for the stuff you make from scratch at home, consider yourself charmed. Buy a lottery ticket because you are lucky. By eating raw eggs or flour you have a fair chance of getting either Salmonella or E. coli.

The odds you’ll get sick from any food product in the United States is about 1 in 7,000.  

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli include diarrhea and abdominal cramps. You can have fever, also. Children younger than 5, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are the  most likely candidates for the illness.

What about my cookie-dough ice cream? I have to have my cookie dough ice cream.

The cookie-dough ice cream is made with both pasteurized eggs and treated flour.  

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