Raw Flour: Maintaining the Chain of Food Safety into the Home
It was just another typical June day, until it wasn’t. The sisters were baking up a batch of cookies, and “like a lot people do, eating a little raw cookie dough.” Both became so ill, they had to be rushed to the hospital, and, for at least one of the sisters, nothing has been typical since. Unfortunately, such E. coli food poisoning from eating raw cookie dough continues to be a problem from time to time. No matter how often consumers are told not to eat even a nibble of raw dough, it’s just too tasty for many to resist.
I have written about this issue before, but it is worth continuing to keep our eyes on any new information, keeping in mind that this issue has not yet been fully resolved. Consumer behavior is always an important factor in controlling food safety risks and that is certainly true with risks associated with raw flour.
The issue is also likely due, at least in part, to some consumer misunderstanding. That is, the risk associated with raw egg consumption is widely communicated, though there are still those who feel the “benefits” outweigh the risk – or simply believe “It won’t happen to me.” And the hazards of raw flour consumption seems to be even less well understood – but just as risky. As was stated by one food safety expert after the 2017 E. coli flour outbreak in Canada, “We tend not to treat flour as a raw food; we treat it as a ready-to-eat product even though it’s not. So we don’t tend to wash our hands afterwards the way we would after handling raw chicken.”
We recently came across a 2020 German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) assessment which found wide distribution and high diversity of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in German flour, characterizing 123 STEC strains isolated from flour products collected between 2015 and 2019. The study showed that raw flour can “serve as a vector for STEC strains with a high pathogenic potential.” Not something that is new, of course, but it does keep the issue in the news.
While some manufacturers have now come out with RTE cookie dough, there remains significant issue with home-prepared doughs and other uses of flour. Although flour could be heat-treated as a pathogenic kill step, this would ruin its gluten and baking performance. Another option is irradiation, but with consumer aversion to anything they perceive to be associated with any form of “radiation,” and the cost of the practice, there is little incentive for manufacturers to attempt its use.
Does this mean that it is a no-win scenario for manufacturers? No, but sort of. Flour needs to be treated as a non-RTE food throughout the food chain – all the way to the consumer. So, no matter how much you attempt to control the risk, you will have to rely on consumers to do the right thing as well.
Thus, with food safety dependent on the whole food chain – including the consumer, it is critical that manufacturers communicate best practices. Include safety instructions on packaging. Never provide for, or indicate, any uses of a non-RTE food – including flour – that do not include cooking/baking or other relevant kill step. And, whenever you get the chance, relay the safety issues of raw flour, cookie dough, etc.
As we have all felt too many times, even when it is the consumer who breaks the chain of food safety, it will come back to haunt the manufacturer, distributor, retailer, etc. Anything you can do on the front end to reduce raw flour consumption will benefit you – and the entire industry – in the long, and short, run. Meanwhile the recent study mentioned above serves to illustrate that we must keep our eyes on public health risks of raw flour and work on all fronts to continue to reduce that risk while we look for a technically and economically feasible solution.