Weighing the Dangers of Dough
I love eating raw cookie dough and making play dough. So, you will understand my sorrow when the FDA declared raw eggs off limits. And now the FDA suggests we skip tasting raw batter and doing doughy crafts because of flour.
According to the FDA blog, “the bottom line for you and your kids is don’t eat raw dough. And even though there are websites devoted to “flour crafts,” don’t give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with.”
So, not only are raw cookies out of the picture, but so are DIY play doughs? Pinterest should be shutting down in 3. . .2. . .1.
But what is the actual likelihood of getting sick from raw flour or eggs? This is an important question for me because raw cookie dough and home made flour dough are staples at our house, so I need more than a general suggestion before quitting them.
Let’s start with a quick reminder of what salmonella poisoning is: ”Salmonella. . . doesn’t produce any visible symptoms in egg-laying hens, which means that it can pass through henhouses undetected until consumers start complaining of diarrhea and vomiting, which are sometimes so severe that they lead to hospitalization.” (Slate)
That sounds awful. I don’t want to put my family through that. Apparently, egg farmers and federal government don’t either, which is why they put safeguards in place, first with the voluntary Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program in 1992, and then with the mandatory Egg Safety Rule in 2010.
In 2010 the New York Times reported:”In the 18 years since the [Pennsylvania] program began, the percentage of contaminated poultry houses has dropped to 8 percent from 38 percent. In 1992, 26 percent of samples from Pennsylvania hen houses tested positive. Today, that’s down to 1 percent.”
In 2010, the federal government required large scale egg producers to comply with a similar safety protocol program, and expanded that program to medium scale producers in 2012. So there have been safeguards for most of the eggs we eat in place for at least 4 years.
I picked the brain of fellow Grounded Parent, J.G. Hovey, who explained “E coli and salmonella are naturally occurring in the guts of animals and that it is particular strains that aren’t evolved to live symbiotically with us that are the issue. I mention this because when I see people claiming local raised chickens don’t “get salmonella” it shows to me that people don’t understand what is meant by salmonella infection.” I am one of those local egg-buying people, so this was good to learn.
The consumer warning against raw flour stems from an E. Coli outbreak traced to flour. Thirty-eight people got sick, and General Mills recalled 10 million pounds of flour. There have been outbreaks due to many other foods, but the flour recall is unusual because it involves the E. coli strain O121. It’s different from the most common strain of E. coli (O157), but both produce toxins (STEC), which make people sick.
Weigh the risks
Your chances of getting E. Coli from raw flour are pretty slim. In 2011, there were only 176 reported cases of STEC O121 in the United States, and 690 in 2014.
More people had STEC O121 than were attacked by sharks in a year (62) or killed by falling coconuts (150), but significantly fewer people had STEC from O121 than died in auto accidents (32,675) or caught norovirus (19-21 million). Each time I drive my kids somewhere, I put them in much greater danger than each time I let them lick the beater or knead DIY play dough.
Your risk of salmonella is much higher “Every year, salmonella is estimated to cause one million food borne illnesses in the United States, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths.” But this statistic is for all sources of salmonella, not just raw eggs.
When put in terms of Salmonella per egg, a New York Times article states that in 2010 the number of eggs found with salmonella was “1.2 eggs per 10,000.” That’s 1 in 8,333 eggs, or one raw egg a day for twenty-two years.
Making Things Even Safer
So, in our family we will continue to lick the spoon of cookie dough and play with home made play dough because the odds against getting sick are pretty great. If you choose to do the same, there are some things you can do to move the odds even more in your favor.
First, don’t bother microwaving the flour, as has been suggested in several forums. According to J.G. Hovey, “Microwaves can only sterilize by heating, and the wavelength wouldn’t touch the whole thing. This is one of the reasons you get hot and cool spots sometimes. But, also, it needs to agitate water molecules to heat up at all, of which dry flour has none.”
Second, store your eggs in the fridge. The FDA suggests that you “refrigerate untreated shell eggs while stored or displayed at 7°C (45°F).”
Third, consider avoiding roadside stand or small flock eggs for raw use (I know this is not going to be a popular opinion, but hear me out). Farmers with fewer than 3,000 hens do not have to abide by the guidelines of the FDA’s Egg Safety Rule, and roadside stand eggs are rarely refrigerated while waiting for you to pass by. Also, Organic doesn’t automatically mean safer. Organic fed chickens can carry salmonella despite many assertions that they do not.
Finally, you can use other flours, but even those have their own issues. Almond flour, for example, is 240 more calories per cup than all purpose flour and costs significantly more.
J.G. Hovey leaves us with some last words on this: “At the end of the day every parent has to make their own common sense decisions about washing hands after certain crafts, cooking, playing with animals, washing vegetables, etc and deciding if that bite of cookie dough or pet is just part of the normal risk of being alive or not. Knowing that there was a current recall of flour, eggs, etc is part of that decision making process. And remember everything raw has a risk, even your salad greens. Keep an eye on the recalls and such, I say, invoke common sense, and try not to drive yourself nuts.”
You really can’t take much of what the FDA says seriously. They adhere to a zero-risk standard mainly because anytime they make a mistake the press rakes them over the coals, merely to get clicks. So you have to look into the details as you have here, Deek, and take what they say with a grain of salt (which they also disapprove of). I’m saying this as a science person (MS molecular physiology), I’m not just pulling this out of my behind.
Good risk analysis considers both the likelihood of something happening, and the consequences of that event – so yes technically eggs & flour are a bad thing because a small child is in FAR more danger than an adult if they’re infected with a bad strain of Salmonella or E. Coli. But when the chances are 1 in 8000? Please, your kids are at a greater risk of injury driving to the store.
Don’t let the bureaucrats concerned for their six-figure salaries scare you, I say, and live life like a regular person, prudent but fearless.
Remember that this is a Consumer Update, which is a guideline that carries no legal or regulatory weight. It’s the FDA posting what they feel is good behavioral advice, but you’re free to do whatever you like. As for myself, I’ll continue to nibble on cookie dough as long as my immune system remains strong.
And as I have several friends who do or have worked for both FDA and Health Canada (including myself), I can attest that there are very few regulatory staff in the world who make “six figures,” and if they do, it’s very close to the bottom of that (FDA salaries are generally G7-G13, which caps at about $119k).
I agree. . .it really is just an issue of risk/benefit. I can see informing parents “hey, here’s a risk you may not have thought of when it comes to using flour for things other than baking” but zero risk statements just seems extreme.
I think you are misusing statistics in a potentially dangerous way. You are
using the total number of deaths caused by an activity as a measure of the risk
posed by that activity. That is incorrect. The total number of deaths is
effected by the number of people participating in the activity. There are
lots of automobile deaths because lots of people drive cars, multiple times a
day. There fewer deaths caused by salmonella because people are exposed to
salmonella much less frequently. Also it is worth pointing out that something
like 80% of salmonella cases are caused by raw eggs.
You are ignoring the Law of Truly Large Numbers, which states that if
you take an unlikely event (like 1/8000), and multiply it by a large number of
trials, those unlikely events become pretty common. So one person could eat a
raw egg each day for twenty years without getting sick, but 8000 people eating
a raw egg a day is one person getting sick each day. A million people eating
a raw egg each day is 125 getting sick each day. By writing an article that
minimizes the risk of food borne illness, you are influencing a population of
people, if that population is large enough, then people will get sick. It
probably won’t be you, but does that make it ok? This is also why the FDA
warns about what might appear to be a low risk activity. They are
advising 320 000 000 people.
In addition, you are also ignoring the risk vs benefit argument. Even if
we accept the claim that driving a car is more risky that eating raw cookie
dough, driving a car provides a much more significant benefit than eating raw
cookie dough. Raw cookie dough is awesome, but in the grand scheme of things,
is it that much better than cookies? Is it worth risking a life over?
If you actually want to make things safe, you can buy (or make) pasteurized
eggs (achieved by holding eggs at 135F for 75 minutes, using a sous-vide
style water bath). I suspect a similar process of putting flour in a low
temperature oven (like 200F or even slightly below) for long enough would kill
any bacteria without effecting the flour’s characteristics.
It’s the FDA you should be criticizing, not Deek – she’s on our side. “So, in our family we will continue to lick the spoon of cookie dough and play with home made play dough because the odds against getting sick are pretty great.”
Thank you for a thorough and well-explained reply, including an explanation of the law of truly large numbers with examples. I appreciate it, and I’m sure people reading this post and comment thread in order to make decisions will as well. Also for the “actually want to make things safe” addition at the end.
I disagree with some of your conclusions related to my post, however.
I don’t see the post as dangerous (which is obvious, I guess. . .since I wouldn’t have posted it if I did). I tried to present statistics in the post because the FDA chose not to do so when making their recommendation.
The FDA opted to publish a blanket statement to avoid using raw flour or eggs combined with a description of the potential illness that could result, rather than inform people of the likelihood that they will contract that illness. I see that as a problem. The FDA blog post that’s being quoted includes only one statistic: 10 million pounds of flour recalled. This tells me nothing about how likely my child or I are to contract an illness. Parenting decisions are almost always ones weighing risk and benefit, but in order to do so, people need to know the risk, not just be told not to do so.
Here is how a post like this could be dangerous: This article currently has about 500 views. If each of those people decide to eat one raw egg, then there is a 1/16 chance that one of them will get salmonella. That is only going to become more likely as more people are convinced by this article that eating raw eggs is (relatively) safe.
Group doesn’t effect individual chance, so you are talking about a completely different value in your comment than I am in this article. The risk each reader undertakes by eating a raw egg is still the same no matter how many readers eat eggs. Even if 500 people each ate one raw egg, then each individual would still have a 1 in 8,333 chance of contracting salmonella.
Group chance is the individual chance multiplied by the number of people taking part. Its the same numbers, just applied differently. You can’t escape the fact that by writing about the individual’s chances of getting sick (and downplaying them) that you are actually affecting a population (your readers) and encouraging them to expose themselves to this risk.
What I am talking about is the difference between the chance “you” will get sick vs “someone” will get sick. If all you care about is whether or not you get sick, then fine. However, by encouraging a population to take this small, and mostly unnecessary risk, you are increasing the chance that someone will get sick.
Personally I would be just as concerned about making someone else sick as myself.