Is it really dangerous to eat raw cookie dough?

You always hear, “don’t eat raw cookie dough” — but most people do it anyway.

So what’s the big problem?

raw cookie dough on cookie sheet

by Nancy J Price

Can you really get food poisoning from cookie dough?

Can you get food poisoning from cookie batter? Seems like a silly question. You probably licked the spoon and nibbled the dough you were a kid, and hey — you lived to tell the tale.

Alas, things have changed. We’re not talking just awareness of food-borne bacteria — especially Salmonella enteritidis (aka SE, a type of bacteria found in shell eggs) – but also that those little pests are in some ways more prevalent and harder to defeat than before.

In the past, the main way salmonella was transmitted through eggs was by infected chicken droppings getting on to eggshells, or even through the tinest of cracks in the eggs. However, the Centers for Disease Control says that during the 1970s, new procedures for cleaning and inspecting eggs were implemented, which really minimized this risk.

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Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Starting in the ’80s, eggs started to be infected directly from the hen while they were being formed — meaning that perfectly clean, uncracked eggs could be dangerous, too.

The CDC says, “SE infection is present in hens in most areas in the United States. An estimated one in 20,000 eggs is internally contaminated. Only a small number of hens might be infected at any given time, and an infected hen can lay many normal eggs while only occasionally laying eggs contaminated with SE.”

The cure, however, is a simple one: Practice safe egg.

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Egg smarts

The FDA offers these egg-handling tips:

  • Wash your hands with hot, soapy water, and wash and sanitize utensils, equipment (such as beaters and blenders), and work areas before and after they come in contact with eggs and uncooked egg-rich foods.
  • Use only Grade A or better eggs. Throw away eggs that are cracked (even slightly) or are leaking.
  • Discard the egg if any shell falls into the egg.
  • Leave eggs in their original carton, and store them in the main section of the refrigerator — not the egg section in the door, because they will stay cooler on the inside of the fridge.
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and the white are firm. Scrambled eggs should not be runny.
  • Never leave eggs or egg-containing foods at room temperature for more than two hours, including preparation and serving (but not cooking) times.
  • Casseroles and other dishes containing eggs should be cooked to 160 degrees F (72 degrees C). Use a food thermometer to be sure.
  • For recipes that call for eggs to be raw or undercooked when the dish is served — such as homemade mayonnaise, eggnog, Caesar salad dressing and homemade ice cream — use either shell eggs that have been treated to destroy Salmonella, by pasteurization or another approved method, or pasteurized egg products (such as Egg Beaters).

And a few more words of wisdom from the University of Minnesota Extension food safety department:

  • Meringue-topped pies should be safe if baked at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes.
  • Chiffon pies and fruit whips made with raw, beaten egg whites are risky. Instead, substitute pasteurized dried egg whites, whipped cream, or a whipped topping.
  • To make a recipe safe that specifies using eggs that aren’t cooked, heat the eggs in a liquid from the recipe over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F. Then combine it with the other ingredients and complete your recipe.
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Gimme all your dough

Now, here’s where things get really annoying. It once was that cookie dough lovers could find salvation in those commercial ready-to-cook doughs (such as Pillsbury, Nestle Toll House and store brands)… but that’s history.

In 2009, several cases of E coli were linked directly to store-bought raw cookie dough, which led to a recall of 3.6 million packages of the dough. The culprit in this case is suspected to be the flour.

How could the flour be infected? There was probably one large batch of flour that was contaminated, and that was enough to taint millions of wannabe cookies. (E coli is usually spread via contact with animals — especially animal feces. Nom nom.)

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Karen Neil, MD, MSPH, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that “flour does not ordinarily undergo a ‘kill step’ to kill pathogens that may be present, unlike the other ingredients in the cookie dough, like the pasteurized eggs, molasses, sugar, baking soda, and margarine.” (See an abstract of their results here.) When the cookie were properly baked, however, they posed no food poisoning risk.

The bottom line is that every time you lick the batter from the mixing spoon or eat a chunk of raw cookie dough, you’re taking a gamble. But assuming you’re not pregnant, very old, very young or immune-compromised, it’s up to you to decide whether the risk — no matter how small — of spending all night on the bathroom floor worshiping the porcelain goddess is worth that little taste.

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