Put down that cookie dough: Uncooked flour may have E. coli

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine details an outbreak of E. coli in 2016 linked to flour and found that the problem may be more common than previously thought.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s the holiday season, which means a lot of families will soon be baking. For all of you that love cookies and can’t resist eating the raw cookie dough, health experts have a warning.

They say eating raw cookie dough can make you sick.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine details an outbreak of E. coli in 2016 linked to flour and found that the problem may be more common than previously thought.

“Our data show that although it is a low-moisture food, raw flour can be a vehicle for foodborne pathogens,” the study said.

Symptoms of E. coli can begin one to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. They can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people get better in five to seven days.

However, some develop a severe complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which the kidneys stop working. This can be life-threatening, and patients who recover may experience permanent kidney damage.

The new study detailed an outbreak that caused 63 cases of illness across 24 states. Seventeen people were hospitalized.

An FDA and USDA investigation into the matter led to the recall of 10 million pounds of flour.

“Linking this outbreak to flour was challenging. Consumption of raw or undercooked flour is not included on most routine state and national foodborne disease questionnaires, so epidemiologists were not initially able to assess whether case patients had consumed raw flour,” the report says, adding that many of the ill patients also reported consuming chocolate chips, which were ruled out as the cause. It was later determined that those patients were baking with flour and chocolate chips.

The authors warned that the outbreak was worsened by human behavior: “The consumption of raw or undercooked homemade dough or batter, which has long been discouraged because of the known risk of salmonellosis from consuming raw eggs, as well as allowing children to play with raw dough in restaurants and using flour to make play-dough for children at home.”

Unfortunately, the advice here is to wash that spoon and bowl without giving in to the temptation to take a taste.