Don't Eat Raw Cookie Dough!

Public Domain. Unsplash – Christmas cookies on a baking sheet

Because nothing would ruin the holiday festivities faster than getting infected with E. coli or salmonella.

It's that time of year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues its annual warning: Do not eat raw cookie dough! It's a hard order to follow, with so many of us mixing up batches of favorite holiday treats and wanting to sample the soft, chewy dough before baking. But alas, the CDC maintains that we could be risking illness if we fall for the temptation.

The problem comes from two ingredients – raw eggs and raw flour. Eggs are commonly understood to be a source of salmonella bacteria when eaten raw, but the warning about flour may come as a surprise to home bakers. Ever since a 2016 outbreak of E. coli made 63 people sick, there has been an increased level of concern about the potential dangers of raw flour.

From the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's statement, issued last year:

"'Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,' says Leslie Smoot, Ph.D., a senior advisor in FDA’s Office of Food Safety and a specialist in the microbiological safety of processed foods. 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 with raw dough, no kill step has been used."

Not everyone buys the "animal heeding the call of nature" argument. One online commenter pointed out that the bigger problem is an industrialized agriculture system that "pumps living beings held in massive warehouses full of waste that then contaminates our water that is then used to irrigate our food – from wheat to romaine lettuce to strawberries – that causes people eating plants to be sickened by E. Coli."

It's a good point, and definitely a serious problem, but all the indignation in the world can't keep you from getting sick if you're the unlucky owner of a bad batch of flour.

What about those eggs? Not everyone is convinced they're a problem either. The Washington Post quotes Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor of health education at the University of Michigan, who says he uses pasteurized eggs when baking. He describes them as "a great public health innovation."

Admittedly, there are probably bigger and scarier things to worry about than sneaking a taste of cookie dough, and countless people have survived their holiday baking unscathed for decades. Nor are parents likely to banish their children from the kitchen during cookie-baking time, as the CDC somewhat preposterously suggests ("Do not let children play with or eat raw dough, including dough for crafts"). But I suppose the organization has to do its job and warn us of all the terrible things that could go wrong.