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The Raw Cookie Dough Scare and How It Should Affect Your Kitchen

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Say goodbye to another childhood favorite: Alarmists have recommended a ban on raw cookie dough.

That’s right. No more snitching a little bite as you prep the baking sheets. No more handing off the beaters to pint-sized helpers (or a pouting partner). Instead, add “eating raw cookie dough” to the list of fun, reasonable and low-risk activities that have recently been labeled irresponsible and deadly.

For those who are still in the dark about the latest (overblown) panic, let’s break down the basics of the cookie dough catastrophe and what it means for you.

FDA and General Mills

On June 28, 2016 the FDA issued a food safety warning with the delightful title: “Raw Dough’s a Raw Deal and Could Make You Sick.”

The warning came as a result of an outbreak due to the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121. The source of the outbreak is believed to be flour produced by the Kansas City, Missouri General Mills facility. In response to the outbreak, General Mills voluntarily recalled 10 million pounds of their flour. This included unbleached, self-rising and all purpose flours sold with brand names of Gold Medal, Gold Medal Wondra and Signature Kitchen’s.

The article certainly is eye-opening, as most people assume the danger in eating raw dough comes from the raw eggs. Turns out, flour is made from grain which is grown in fields where as the FDA euphemistically put it: Animals may “[heed] the call of nature.” The flour-making process itself doesn’t include treatments to kill bacteria. Instead, it’s assumed that consumers will bake or otherwise cook the flour before eating it.

In layman’s terms: Animal poop can contaminate the grain, which results in contaminated flour. Eating raw cookie dough puts you at risk for illness due to fecal bacteria.

Yum.

The FDA warns consumers against playing with raw dough, citing cookie dough and homemade play dough specifically.

A Little Perspective

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the FDA’s warning (or the recall), it does merit a little bit of perspective.

Overall, the CDC reports that 42 people in 21 states were affected, with 11 hospitalized for treatment. That’s 13 fewer cases and 10 fewer hospitalizations than the Chipotle outbreak.

Obviously the FDA instructed Americans to never eat at a Chipotle restaurant again, right?

Wrong.

The FDA opted for common sense instead of a panicked overreaction, stating that those “who have recently become ill after eating at a Chipotle should contact their health care provider.”

So why issue a far stricter warning for a far smaller outbreak?

Let’s get even more perspective. The United States has a population of just over 320 million people. That means an outbreak involving 42 people does not even begin to approach one thousandth of a percent of the population.

Since its invention, how many people do you think consume raw cookie dough each year? Each decade?

Common Sense and Food Safety

Of course, food safety is no joke. Infected and spoiled food can cause serious health complications or even death. So what are the average Jack and Jill to do to ensure food safety without devoting every second of their lives to constant vigilance and ceaseless worrying?

A little bit of education and research goes a long way. The USDA has a downloadable Kitchen Companion filled with 52 pages of food safety tips from cleaning to cooking to storing.

Although 52 pages might sound overwhelming, many of the instructions fall in line with what most of us would call common sense, like checking sell-by dates and refrigerating dairy and meat as quickly as possible after purchase. Other items (like how long you can safely refrigerate or freeze certain foods) do not fit easily under the common sense umbrella, which is why it is useful to have a one-stop guide to refer to when in doubt.

It’s also important to keep risk factors in mind. For most any danger — whether that’s extreme temperatures, infections or diseases — it’s the youngest, oldest and immunocompromised among us who are most at risk. So while teens and adults can probably ignore the FDA’s anti-cookie dough stance, caretakers in charge of very young children or senior citizens may want to apply the warning to their charges.

Bottom line? It is unlikely that cookie dough is a silent killer, lurking within every happy childhood memory, waiting to strike down those who don’t want to wait 10 minutes for a cooked cookie. Food safety is unquestionably important, but so are proper perspective and personal risk management.

So while you should check your pantry for items included in the General Mills recall, there’s probably no need to personally and permanently abstain from licking the beaters (just be sure to turn off the mixer before you lick the beaters).

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