It’s tempting to dip one’s finger in raw cookie dough or cake batter when doing some holiday baking, but a study is advising against doing anything of the sort due to the risk of contracting an E. coli infection.
The risk stems from consuming uncooked flour, the study says, due to possible contamination, and was linked to a 2016 outbreak of E.coli in the U.S. However, researchers say, the problem may be more common than previously believed.
“Our data show that although it is a low-moisture food, raw flour can be a vehicle for food-borne pathogens,” the study reads.
The outbreak caused 63 illnesses across 24 states and 17 people were hospitalized, researchers say.
“Linking this outbreak to flour was challenging,” the study says. “Consumption of raw or undercooked flour is not included on most routine state and national food-borne disease questionnaires, so epidemiologists were not initially able to assess whether case patients had consumed raw flour.”
The outbreak gained traction because of human behaviour, the report says.
“The consumption of raw or under-cooked 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.”
E.coli is often associated with foods like undercooked or uncooked meat, fresh produce and unpasteurized milk, for example, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Last April, Robin Hood flour issued a Canada-wide recall after an E. coli contamination made more than two dozen people sick.
The bacteria associated with the outbreak was a pathogenic type of E. coli called 0121 – and while most E. coli doesn’t make people sick, this type does, Lawrence Goodridge, the Ian and Jayne Munro chair in food safety in the department of food science and agricultural chemistry at McGill University, explained.
But as the holidays roll around and families begin to prepare dinners and desserts, E. coli isn’t the only thing to worry about when preparing your eats.
“Good food safety practices are obviously important year-round because food-borne illness is equally dangerous and unpleasant regardless of what day or month it is,” registered dietitian Andy De Santis says. “With that being said, the holiday season may be a time of increased susceptibility, sheerly because most of us have so much going on in the kitchen that it becomes easier to let things slide.”
As well, holiday menus are often extensive and there are more opportunities for things to go wrong, he adds.
“Salmonella, E. coli and listeria may all naturally exist on raw meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, soft and semi-soft cheeses and the surface of raw fruits and veggies,” De Santis says. “When we don’t handle, prepare and store these types of foods properly, we put ourselves at greater risk of food-borne illnesses caused by these organisms.”
So here are a few things De Santis and fellow registered dietitian Tristica Curley of Fueling with Food want home chefs to keep in mind when preparing their holiday feasts.
First, remember raw eggs contain salmonella, so don’t taste-test anything raw (like cookie dough).
Salmonella can be dangerous particularly to children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems, De Santis warns.
Instead, Eat Right Ontario and Curley recommend using pasteurized egg products when making eggnog in particular because they have been heated to a high temperature that kills the bacteria.
Unpasteurized apple cider can also be a safety risk, Eat Right Ontario says. There is a risk that the raw fruit can be contaminated with E. coli as it may come in contact with animal droppings or contaminated water. Instead, choose pasteurized apple cider.
If you’re travelling or serving food buffet style, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Do not allow foods to remain at room temperature for more than two hours and do not eat the food past two to three days after refrigeration, De Santis says.
“It’s easy to forget how long our turkey dinner has been left on the counter or table after it’s cooked,” Curley says. “But bacteria grows in food quite quickly as it starts to cool down. So as soon as supper is complete, promptly pack up the leftovers and refrigerate for another time.”
Use separate, dedicated cutting boards for meat and produce to avoid cross-contamination, De Santis advises. And cook your foods to the proper internal temperature. For whole poultry, like turkey, that number is 180 F.
— With files from Tanya Kohut