By: Heather Williams

It’s tempting.  Chocolatey goodness of brownie batter, sweet and delicious cookie batter, rich and creamy cake batter…  Ignore those temptations for your own good, and DON’T LICK THAT SPOON!  People assume that raw egg is the bad guy stomping on your sweet tooth’s dreams.  It is true, consuming raw egg products is also a very bad idea.  Though the purpose of a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine based on a massive recall of flour in the Summer of 2016 sheds light on flour being an unnecessary risk when it comes to raw food consumption.  It seems for flour to be such a risk, but it is.

Innocent looking white flour?  Yes.  The bacteria does not spoil the product or cause any visibly noticeable changes to the color or texture, so it is almost impossible to know if the white stuff in your cabinet is tainted.  Keep this in mind as the holiday baking season is upon us.  Don’t lick the spoon, don’t lick the bowl, and watch children around baking and flour products.  As if you needed something else to worry about during the holidays.  “We’re not trying to ruin people’s holidays but we want them to be aware of the risks,” said Samuel J. Crowe, the lead author of the study and an epidemiologist with the division of food-borne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recalled Flour Stirs the Pot

With nearly 250 products containing the tainted flour, including packaged mixes, over 10 million pounds of flour was recalled in 2006 due to an E. coli outbreak.  Other outbreaks had occurred as a result of flour, but none to this scale.  This outbreak involved 56 patients across 24 states.  More than a quarter of those who were sickened required hospitalization, and one went into kidney failure.  The patients ranged in age from 1 year old to 95.  Thankfully, all recovered.

As cases came trickling in, samples were investigated and a strain was indicated.  A cooperative investigation between state health officials and labs, doctors, and clinics as well as Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed the pieces to come together to indict flour as the culprit.  Each of the patients has been interviewed and many of them had indicated they had tasted raw baking dough.  Some of the children who became ill had been reported to tasting homemade playdough or raw tortilla dough given to them at a restaurant to entertain them.

Chocolate chips was the first ingredient investigators began pointing fingers at.  Investigation revealed that bakers had used different brands unrelated to each other.  Eventually, investigators settled on flour as the source.  Some patients were able to retrieve the bags of flour that they had used.  All that could be provided had come from the same facility in Kansas City, Mo.

The pot kept stirring as the investigation continued.  Sampling at the General Mills facility indicated no contamination present.  This is where products like Gold Medal flour are milled and packaged.  Researchers speculated that bacterial contamination likely came from earlier in the process. Perhaps from the wheat itself as it was growing in the fields.  Cattle or whitetail deer could have roamed through the wheat fields, dropping manure with the harmful bacteria directly onto the crops.  A General Mills spokesman indicated that heat-treating the flour prior to packaging was not possible as it “would impact its performance, such as rising properties,” and advised consumers to follow food safety practices by not eating raw batter.

The study explained that “the bacteria is not uniformly distributed in a two-and-a-half-pound bag of flour,” and that “a small amount could get your really sick.”  This is something that should be taken very seriously.

But What About Cookie Dough Ice Cream?

Say it isn’t so!  Your mind might be drifting toward another favorite dessert that contains this forbidden treat.  What about cookie dough ice cream?  You can breathe a sigh of relief.  As of 2009, the cookie dough used in cookie dough ice cream are not only pasteurized, but heat-treated as well to render the product safe.  If you have ever tried to extract the cookie dough balls from ice cream and attempt to bake them without success (It’s crazy, but people keep trying), this is why.  This practice began after an outbreak in 2009 that sickened 77 people was traced back to a strain of E. coli in commercial cookie dough.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself and My Family?

What are some of the things that you can do to protect yourself and your family from becoming ill while making memories and enjoying sweet treats?  Besides refraining from tasting uncooked flour dishes, wash hands with hot and soapy water after handling flour, and supervise small children when cooking or baking.

Think about all of the times we come in contact with raw flour.  We use it to dust a rolling pin or on the surface of the counter when rolling out dough.  We use it to dredge fish, chicken, or beef before frying.  Where ever your flour use takes you, be sure to wash hands thoroughly after use.

To be sure the final product is pathogen free, cook with high, sustained heat to kill all of the bacteria that might be present.  It’s always a good idea to be sure that food products are thoroughly cooked.  We pay great attention to internal cooking temperatures for meats, but side dishes and products containing flour and egg are also important to cook thoroughly.

E. coli Symptoms to Look For

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. While that sounds like a mouthful, it is a bacteria that can cause serious illness. This bacterium naturally lives in the intestines of people and animals.  While most strains of E. coli are harmless and make up the natural biome of a health intestinal tract, some can cause severe diarrheal illness and other health complications.  The harmful forms of E. coli are often transmitted though contaminated food or water and also contact with infected people and animals.

The more severe pathogenic strains produce a toxin called “shiga toxin” and are referred to as Shiga Toxin Producing E. coli or STEC for short.  These mean little guys can guys bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, and vomiting.  A low-grade fever of 101⁰F or less is fairly common with STEC infection.  Most normally health individuals get better within 5 to 7 days.  While some are mild, others can be severe or even life-threatening.

One life-threatening complications is known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS.  This occurs in 5 to 10% of individuals diagnosed with STEC infection.  Symptoms include decreased urination, a tired feeling, and pallor of the cheeks and lower eyelids.  These symptoms should be taken very seriously, as many with this complication may experience kidney failure or other serious health conditions.  Most individuals diagnosed with HUS recover within a few weeks, however some may suffer permanent damage or even death.