Most of us know that raw eggs in cookie dough and cake batter can carry salmonella, but a new warning from the FDA and surge of product recalls is a grim reminder that raw flour could be making us sick, too.
Two General Mills boxed cake mixes are the latest baking products recalled due to possible E. coli contamination ― which, at best, gives consumers a bad case of diarrhea and cramps for a week and, at worst, can cause kidney failure. In total, the company has recalled more than 10 million pounds of flour in recent months.
Widespread flour contamination is a relatively new phenomenon, food safety experts told The Huffington Post. Here’s what you need to know:
Raw flour can carry contaminants just like any other field crop
It’s easy to forget when you’re looking at flour in its white, powdery form, but the baking staple is derived from uncooked grains growing in an open field just like any other crop susceptible to bacterial contaminations.
“We were looking to bring awareness to the consumers who might not be aware that … grain is a raw agricultural product,” FDA senior food safety advisor Les Smoot told The Huffington Post.
But flour is not typically treated to kill bacteria like E. coli, the FDA explained. Instead it’s expected that consumers will take their own so-called “kill steps” against any possible bacteria by boiling, baking, roasting, microwaving or frying the flour during the cooking process.
What makes raw flour less safe to eat than raw produce?
Because E. coli outbreaks in flour are a relatively new phenomenon, food producers and suppliers have a lot of experience preventing the bacteria in raw fruits and vegetables.
“There is much more data currently available on the risk of contamination in fresh produce, as well as information on how to prevent contamination in fresh produce,” Londa Nwadike, an assistant professor of food safety and an extension food safety specialist at the University of Missouri and Kansas State University, told HuffPost in en email. “There are currently more education and outreach efforts all along the produce chain ... from farmers to transporters to processors, retailers, consumers” to prevent contamination in produce, she explained.
That could soon change, though.
“There will likely be many more research, education and outreach efforts to reduce the risk of contamination in flour in the future after this outbreak,” Nwadike said. “In the past, we didn’t think as much about flour being a raw product that carried a risk of contamination, but it is being more recognized now, which is why FDA is trying to provide consumers with information to reduce their risk of contamination from raw flour.”
We’re still trying to figure out how flour is getting contaminated.
“We really haven’t found why and how the flour has been contaminated,” Smoot said. “We are presuming one of the probable sources could be animal activity in the field where these types of products are harvested and treated.”
Animal activity may be animals dropping feces in the fields, or wind blowing contamination down from mountainous pastures, food safety expert Jeff Nelken told HuffPost. Beyond animal activity, contamination could come from “the processing facilities, it could be the water supply, it could be the workers,” he said.
Will cake batter and cookie dough ever be safe to eat?
Raw eggs in the dough still carry a risk of salmonella, but we may be able to lower the risk of E. Coli in flour by heat-treating it.
Nestlé started heat-treating all the flour in its cookie dough when the FDA linked raw cookie dough to an E. coli outbreak in 2009, though it’s unlikely the whole industry will be able to update to the infrastructure and technology needed for heat-treating any time soon, LiveScience reported.
“The bottom line for you and your kids,” the FDA urges for now, “is don’t eat raw dough.”