November 18, 2018

Food Safety Bloopers: Raw Cookie Dough Edition

Last week, an editor for Slate magazine, L.V. Anderson, wrote an article entitled: “Salmonella and raw eggs: How I’ve eaten tons of cookie dough and never gotten sick”. In it, she says that she has eaten about 360 raw eggs in her lifetime and has never contracted a Salmonella infection. From that, she infers that raw cookie dough is not really dangerous. This story is full of logical fallacies.

Chocolate Chip Cookie DoughFirst, she is committing the logical fallacy of a small sample size: herself. Extrapolating from her personal experiences to the entire nation is extremely foolish. In addition, she may have gotten sick from eating a Salmonella-contaminated egg, but didn’t even know it. The incubation period for these infections is up to three days, so she most likely did not connect the food that made her sick to the illness. In addition, she may have gotten sick, but the symptoms were mild. Many people think they have the “24 hour flu” when in fact they have food poisoning.

Second, she mentions that only 1 in 20,000 eggs contains Salmonella enteritidis. But using those statistics instead of real numbers is misleading. One in 20,000 translates to 3,750,000 contaminated eggs sold in the U.S. every year. That explains why a USDA risk assessment from 2004 states that “350,000 cases of salmonellosis are attributed to raw or undercooked eggs every year.” See why relying on a small sample size is foolish? In fact, every year Salmonella causes 1.3 million illnesses, 15,000 hospitalizations, and 500 deaths in this country. And eggs are one of the most common sources of Salmonella infections.

Third, it’s important to note that Salmonella infections are vastly under-reported. The CDC uses a multiplier of 30.3 to estimate the true number of illnesses in each outbreak. Many more people contract Salmonella infections than the number actually reported. In fact, a Salmonella outbreak in 2010 linked to shell eggs sickened 3,578 people across the country. Using the multiplier, that means that more than 100,000 people were sickened from those contaminated Wright County farm eggs.

And fourth, raw eggs aren’t the only hazard in raw cookie dough or cake batter. Raw flour is a hazard too. In 2009, an outbreak of E. coil O157:H7 was linked to Nestle raw cookie dough. In that outbreak, 25 people were hospitalized and 7 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious condition that can cause kidney failure. All from eating raw cookie dough.

She does have the knowledge to say that anyone with a weakened immune system, children, the elderly, and pregnant women shouldn’t consume raw eggs. But telling everyone else it’s perfectly fine is absolutely ridiculous.

And she mentions that using pasteurized eggs is a good idea. It is. But that pesky USDA risk assessment states that “if all eggs produced in the U.S. were pasteurized for a 3-log10 reduction of S. enteritidis, the annual number of illnesses would be reduced to about 110,000.” That’s still a lot of sick people. In addition, the egg business in this country is huge. You’re relying on large scale processors to produce a safe product. Even with USDA oversight, mistakes happen and contaminated foods are sold to the public every single day. Trusting that a risky food is always going to be safe is foolish, so consumers are the last line of defense against food poisoning.

I did get salmonellosis as a child – from eggs. I didn’t get sick enough to go to a doctor, but the experience was horrible. I remember the feeling to this day, decades later. I don’t want anyone else to suffer that way. That’s why we are calling out L.V. Anderson and telling her she is wrong. Once you’ve ingested enough bacteria to make you sick, you can’t go back. And please, cook eggs thoroughly, don’t eat raw cookie dough or cake batter, avoid raw milk and cider, cook your hamburgers and other ground meat recipes to 165 degrees F, and refrigerate all perishable foods promptly. Be safe.

Comments

  1. Tami K. Hastings says:

    I just got the chance to read this and I agree with Joe. You wrote an awesome article, Linda, with excellent information. Makes me even happier that I cited both a doughnut and Mexican food facilities for sanitation violations related to their dough sheeter / cutter and sopaipilla roller machines. Thank you for this article and Food Poisoning Bulletin.

  2. Joe Hibberd says:

    Linda —

    You bring up many excellent points. Thank you for your information on this often-misunderstood topic.

    Joe

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