Tricia Azra, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with Carolinas HealthCare System says even though contamination of raw flour is not very common, putting in place some best practices to create a safe cooking environment in your kitchen can help you prevent many foodborne illnesses.

News, Your Health | 3 years ago

Avoid a Bad Batch: What to Know When Cooking with Raw Flour

We all know that cookie dough containing raw eggs can carry a risk of getting us sick if we eat it. But did you know that raw flour can also do the same?  

It’s a cold and gray winter weekend and a perfect time to whip up a batch of cookies. You find a recipe online and gather your ingredients: Baking powder. Check. Sugar. Check. Vanilla extract. Check. Flour. Check.

Before you pop them into the oven, you want to make sure it tastes right, so you grab a quick taste from the leftover batter off the spatula. Deeee-licious! But if you weren’t careful, that quick taste may contain bacteria called Escherichia coli – or E. coli – a germ that can be found within grain before it is harvested and remain there after it is processed into flour and cause some nasty symptoms to your gastrointestinal tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not the way you had planned to spend the holidays, right?

Tricia Azra, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with Atrium Health, says even though contamination of raw flour is not very common, putting in place some best practices to create a safe cooking environment in your kitchen can help you prevent many foodborne illnesses. 

“E.coli bacteria live naturally in certain animals and their feces can contaminate fields in which crops are grown. The particular strain found in the 2016 flour recall is less severe than the strain found in undercooked meat,” Azra says. “However, it is always best to practice general food safety and proper hygiene when working with raw flour. Proper cooking kills E. coli bacteria so it’s best to refrain from eating raw flour such as cookie dough and wait for it to be safely baked.”

Know Your Dough

In 2016, General Mills recalled tens of millions of pounds of flour over a period of several weeks after reports of dozens of foodborne sicknesses related to the products surfaced. Lab analysis from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration confirmed the strain of E. coli in the flour matched the strain confirmed in the victims. The bacteria were traced back to the grain itself and not because of any of the company’s production processes.

The recall impacted dozens of products including bread mixes, brownie and cake mixes, muffin mixes, pancake and biscuit mixes, and meat and poultry products in addition to the all purpose, self-rising and unbleached types of flour. The initial outbreak may be over, but due to the long shelf life of flour and flour products, these packages could remain in pantries and continue to make people sick.

Also, just last month, ConAgra Brands issued a recall for four different varieties of its popular Duncan Hines cake mix. Five cases have been reported and the CDC is currently investigating this latest outbreak of Salmonella, another gastrointestinal foodborne illness. Eggs are another ingredient of many holiday treats and are safe to eat when handled and cooked properly. But Salmonella can be found in raw eggs and dietitians advise bakers to avoid biting, tasting, licking eating any items with raw eggs in them before they're cooked. 

Keeping it Clean

The key to preventing food sickness is to make sure you’re properly handling and cooking food as well as all food preparation equipment and surfaces. “When preparing foods with raw flour, practice frequent hand-washing and be sure to clean food preparation surfaces such as counters, cutting boards and utensils to avoid cross-contaminating other areas of your home,” Azra says.

Make sure you’re cleaning your kitchen surfaces correctly and preventing bacteria from growing in your cleaning supplies. 

Tips for Handling Raw Foods

  • Always follow package directions (if available) for cooking products at the appropriate temperature and length of time.
  • Keep raw foods away from prepared foods during preparation – and take note that due to its consistency, flour can end up on many different surfaces.
  • If the product requires chilling or refrigeration, follow the directions and make sure they are stored at the appropriate temperature for the right amount of time.
  • Do not eat any products containing raw eggs.
  • Avoid using homemade cookie dough for use in ice cream. The cookie dough that comes in flavored ice cream is treated to remove any possible harmful bacteria.