published Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Another tradition bites the dust

Eating raw cookie dough is a habit, if not an addiction, for many individuals, especially at year’s end when baking reaches its zenith. This year, though, many people might think twice about it. A new report says eating raw dough can make people sick to their stomach — or worse. Turns out that the generations of Moms who warned about the dangers of eating the stuff were right.

An investigation into a 2009 outbreak of E. coli by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first tied the illness that affected people in 30 states to prepackaged raw cookie dough. Subsequent tests ruled out ingredients such as raw eggs, sugar, margarine, chocolate chips, etc. as the vectors of E. coli. There was no indication, either, that an intentional act, improper food handling or lax safety enforcement was responsible for the contamination. The only ingredient left, experts determined, was flour, which is a raw product.

Investigators could not tie flour to the illness with certainty, but did note that the ingredient is not processed in a manner that kills pathogens. CDC scientists did label flour as a “prime suspect” in the outbreak, and urged producers to heat it before use. Major producers like Nestle now do so. To date, there has not been a recurrence of E. coli tied to cookie dough.

Even so, the CDC warning still holds true. “My recommendation ... is that you should not consume raw cookie dough ... whether it’s made at home or as a commercial product. That is the safest thing to avoid illness,” said Dr. Karen Neil, a CDC medical epidemiologist.

The warning has particular resonance for young women. The CDC reports that among those who contracted E. coli from eating cookie dough, 66 percent were under 19 years old, 71 percent were female and that many of the latter purchased prepackaged dough with no intention of baking it. They ate it straight from the package, despite warnings to the contrary.

Some individuals no doubt will seize on the lack of definitive evidence against flour as the culprit in the outbreak as an excuse to continue to eat raw dough, whether it was made at home or purchased in a package. That’s not a wise decision.

Until flour is uniformly heat-treated, a process that kills most pathogens in the raw product, it’s better to err on the side of good health. The nation’s raw cookie dough eaters won’t be happy giving up their traditional and admittedly tasty treat, but they almost certainly will be safer and will make Mom happy by doing so.

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