It’s one of the special joys of Christmas — baking up a storm of holiday goodies!
It gets even better when the kids or grandkids join in, measuring, mixing… and licking that spoon or bowl, as we’ve all done.
And that’s when this innocent pleasure can turn deadly — but not for the reason you might be thinking.
Because of all the ways you could get sick with a food-borne illness like that caused by E. coli bacteria, you might never guess that a likely culprit is flour — specifically, uncooked flour.
Yes, flour can be “raw” like meat or chicken! And, based on the risks it has already posed to the public’s health at large, it turns out that it can also be just as dangerous.
Of course, getting sick from tasting and even touching unbaked dough isn’t anything new — you just never hear about it unless a lot of folks fall ill.
But that doesn’t mean you should stop baking your family’s prized yule log cake or any other special recipe, because there are some easy precautions you can take now to protect yourself and your loved ones all year long.
‘A new view of flour’
At first, the 2016 outbreak of E. coli — in fact, a particularly dangerous strain of it called 0121 — wasn’t all that easy to pin down. After all, flour isn’t a usual suspect in food poisoning cases.
But after 55 people got sick… 16 landed in the hospital… and the cause remained a mystery… CDC scientists donned their detective hats to try to figure out what was going on.
And what they found — as they’ve just published in The New England Journal of Medicine — was that it all boiled down to a toxic flour fiasco!
In fact, what they found is so shocking that one expert has declared it an entirely “new view of flour.”
Luckily, no one died — this time at least. But one teen was hit so hard with the E. coli infection that she developed “hemolytic uremic syndrome” — a destruction of blood platelets that can cause anemia and kidney failure.
And although you may have never heard of such a thing before, last year’s outbreak wasn’t the first time a large group of people got sick from bacteria-laden batter. In fact, there also was an E. coli epidemic from raw flour back in 2009, but it didn’t make headlines.
Now, if you’re wondering how a dry, powdery, shelf-stable substance such as flour could become contaminated with something typically associated with things like meat and leafy veggies, you’re not alone!
As Dr. Marguerite Neill, a professor of medicine at Brown University Medical School, put it, the concept of a pantry staple containing a live microorganism that won’t spoil it… but could make you very sick… just seems “incredible.”
Part of the danger lies in the fact that when E. coli is present in flour, it’s not uniformly spread throughout a bag. Instead, it can collect in small pockets — meaning that if you just so happen to lick your fingers or taste a bit from a contaminated part, you could be in big trouble.
As for how flour gets contaminated in the first place — well, that’s certainly the least appetizing part of all this!
As cattle or deer roam through wheat fields, the droppings they leave behind can end up getting “harvested” right along with the wheat. But since flour can’t be heated or sanitized before it’s sold (because that would affect its ability to rise), those animals end up unwittingly spreading their E. coli throughout the area.
And, in some cases, that bacteria somehow manages to survive… and stay active enough to make you sick if you consume it without baking it first.
So, now that you know the dirty details about what might be contained in that innocuous-looking bag, here’s what you need to do to stay safe:
#1 Put down the spoon! No more tasting or bowl-licking when preparing baked goods — with or without eggs in it — especially where children are concerned. (However, if your favorite ice cream flavor happens to be cookie dough, you can breathe a sigh of relief — because commercial ice creams are pasteurized to kill any bacteria!)
#2 If you’ve kneaded your bread dough by hand or used your hands when shaping cookies, wash them just as well as if you had handled raw meat.
#3 Wash cutting boards, bowls, spoons, and anything else that’s touched raw dough in the dishwasher or with hot, soapy water.
#4 Don’t let kids play with homemade playdough. Some of the children who got sick in last year’s outbreak were given dough balls to play with at a restaurant!
Fortunately, I’m not here to ruin Christmas for you — because there’s no need to worry about your special homemade cookies or gingerbread.
They’ll be perfectly safe after spending time in the oven. Just make sure a toothpick inserted into their centers comes out “clean” — which means they’re really “done”!
“Thanks a lot! New reasons not to eat cookie dough” Jan Hoffman, November 22, 2017, The New York Times, nytimes.com