Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mmmm…Raw Cookie D’oh!

For several years now, the government has told Americans to put down the tube of raw cookie dough and step away. New warnings about the harrowing dangers of cookie dough were announced by the FDA last week, right before our 4th of July holiday. Seriously? You’ve been eating the stuff ever since your BFF started dating your ex in high school. What’s the big deal?

Where did things start to go wrong for Barney? Could it have been the raw cookie dough?
In this crazy, hustle and bustle world, who has the time to wait for the cookies to be cooked? Raw cookie dough allows you to savor all of the yummy cookie goodness without the grueling task of popping them into the oven and waiting 10 minutes, which feels like an eternity when you need your sugar fix. And then there’s the mess to clean up…who needs that?

So you defiantly crack open that tube and bury your face in the heavenly Play-Doh-like substance – nom nom. A few hours later, as you rest in content satisfaction on the couch, you begin to feel a great disturbance in The Force. An abrupt gurgle begins to percolate in your gut. Your stomach makes a demonic growl. Visions of volcanic eruptions suddenly waft through your woozy head. The horrific bout of bloody diarrhea that follows might be enough to convince you to listen to those pesky scientists at the FDA from now on. The intestinal apocalypse you experience may even have you wishing for death, but don’t do so lightly. Raw cookie dough has been known to kill.

Linda Rivera died in 2013, a victim of eating a few spoonfuls of raw cookie dough. Over 70 other people were sickened during this outbreak, which started in 2009 and affected mostly teenage girls and children.
How could something that tastes so good be so bad for you? Your first instinct might be the raw eggs in the dough, which could be contaminated with a common food poisoning bacterium, Salmonella. While this is indeed possible, the latest round of scares stem from flour contaminated with a particularly nasty strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli). Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121 has been identified as the culprit behind a massive recall of contaminated flour made by General Mills. Most E. coli strains are harmless, but this one is so not harmless.

Now you might be wondering:  how does E. coli, a bacterial species that inhabits the gut, get into flour? Flour comes from grain grown in fields where animals may do their business - not the kind of "chocolate chips" you want in your cookie dough! But the grain is not normally sterilized because manufacturers assume that people would actually cook the items made from that flour, which kills the E. coli. However, some people just want the “goods” and not the “baked” part.

The Shiga toxin produced by this type of E. coli is the cause for the alarm – these are proteins made by the bacteria that can bind to receptors on our cells, particularly in the intestine and the kidney, which is why people experience bloody diarrhea and renal failure when infected. Once inside our cells, the Shiga toxin can bind to our ribosomes, which make our cellular proteins. When our cells can’t make proteins, they eventually die.

E. coli bacteria are kind of scruffy-looking, but those “hairs” are actually flagella the bacterium uses to get around. About 10,000 of these can fit on the head of a pin. It only takes 10 of the more virulent strains to make you seriously ill.
Over 40 people have been sickened from the recent outbreak, almost a baker's dozen requiring hospitalization. There have been no deaths to date, and deaths from cookie dough remain extremely rare…but it has happened and is a most unpleasant way to leave the world. So cook your cookies or risk tossing them later.

The FDA also warned that pizza dough, “play clay” made from dough, or “flour crafts” that kids sometimes play with, can also lead to food poisoning. Even if they don’t eat it, the E. coli can get onto their hands, which usually end up in their mouth before they get washed.
In light of these cookie dough poisonings, manufacturers have started to use only pasteurized eggs and, more recently, heat-treated flour to destroy the bacterial culprits. However, they still caution that consumers cook the product properly to be on the safe side.

What about those of us who enjoy our desserts within a dessert, namely cookie dough ice cream? You can breathe easy - cookie dough ice cream is okay to eat because it is typically made with heat-treated flour and pasteurized eggs.
To put things in perspective, E. coli contaminated spinach sickened nearly 200 people and killed 3 of them in 2006. The point is not to eat more cookie dough instead of spinach (sorry)…but to handle and prepare ALL food properly no matter what it is.

Putting it all together, if you are making cookie dough or cake batter from scratch, odds are the flour you're using has not been heat-treated to kill bacteria, so there is a chance it could be contaminated. Even if it is not under the recall, the flour should be treated as you would any other raw food. If you must play cookie dough roulette, some companies are stepping up to the (kitchen) plate and making some that lacks eggs and uses heat-treated flour.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan

Thorpe, C. (2004). Shiga Toxin--Producing Escherichia coli Infection Clinical Infectious Diseases, 38 (9), 1298-1303 DOI: 10.1086/383473

Obrig, T. (2010). Escherichia coli Shiga Toxin Mechanisms of Action in Renal Disease Toxins, 2 (12), 2769-2794 DOI: 10.3390/toxins2122769