ScienceSkepticism

The CDC can Take My Cookie Dough out of My Cold Dead e. Coli-infested Hands

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Transcript:

The internet is up in arms about the CDC this week, because they announced that we shouldn’t be eating raw cookie dough due to the danger of it being contaminated — not just with salmonella from the raw eggs, but from e coli from the flour. People are shocked, for some reason, despite the fact that the CDC and the FDA have been saying this for years. Here is my official response, every year: thanks but I’m going to keep eating raw cookie dough and you cannot stop me.

I know, normally I’m on the side of the FDA and the CDC, and to be fair they are giving advice on how you can be as healthy as possible. It’s true: if you want to do everything in your power to avoid salmonella and e coli, you should not eat raw cookie dough. The fact is that yes, occasionally an egg will be infected with a type of salmonella that doesn’t like the human body (and vice versa), causing you quite a bit of pain in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, headache, or fever.

And yes, occasionally flour will be infected with a type of e coli that can cause mostly those same sort of symptoms. It was a bit of a surprise when we all realized this a few years back, because usually you need some type of wetness to get the really good bacteria thriving in your food, but flour is totally dry. Still, there’s one particular kind of e coli that can survive in that environment, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Usually you kill e coli with heat, but heating up flour can screw it up for the end consumer who wants to usually bake it into something, so too bad.

So if I accept that the CDC and FDA are correct on all these points, why will I continue to eat cookie dough? And not just the occasional bite, I mean I will make an entire batch of cookie dough with the intention of baking it but never actually get around to that simple step because I fucking love cookie dough.

The answer is simple: risk assessment.

About 60 people got sick in 2016 when a particular brand of flour was infected. Of those, one person experienced kidney failure. No one died, and everyone made a full recovery.

This year, about the same number of people got sick from e coli that was in romaine lettuce. Two people experienced kidney failure. No one died.

That happens pretty much every year with some kind of raw salad green. In fact, in the romaine press release the CDC says, “Ill people in this outbreak were infected with E. coli bacteria with the same DNA fingerprint as the E. coli strain isolated from ill people in a 2017 outbreak linked to leafy greens in the United States and to romaine lettuce in Canada. The current outbreak is not related to a spring 2018 multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce.”

That’s right, there was another romaine lettuce e coli outbreak earlier this year and five people died. A few months later, we were all eating it again. And yet never has the CDC or FDA recommended we never visit a salad bar. The recommendation, instead, is something like this: “CDC is advising that consumers not eat any romaine lettuce harvested from the Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California.” That’s very specific, and it will go away in a few months and everyone will go back to eating romaine lettuce with nary a care for where it came from. And that’s how it should be, because we always take on a risk when we eat something raw, but that risk is generally so infinitesimally small that to permanently change our behavior about it would be ludicrous. And I should mention that yes, a woman did die back in 2009 from contaminated cookie dough, sort of — she had complication that led to several years of medical problems, and eventually those problems led to her death. But again, way more people have died from e coli found in other sources, like fast food, spinach, cheese, more fast food, soy butter, and yes, more fast food. It’s extremely, extremely rare. But yeah, it’s usually fast food.

One of my bloggers at Grounded Parents wrote about this issue back in 2016, pointing out that they take a far greater risk each time they put their kids in the car. There are 1.2 eggs with salmonella for every 10,000, meaning you’d have to eat one entire raw egg every day for 22 years before you’re statistically likely to get sick from it. E coli from flour is even rarer. You’re several orders of magnitude more likely to die in a car crash than you are to even get a stomach ache from raw cookie dough. I mean, an e coli stomach ache, not the natural stomach ache I get after I eat my nightly pound of gingerbread dough during the Christmas season. Okay yeah maybe I have a problem, what’s it to you?

And sure, riding in a car seems like a necessity, but I am here to tell you that it is not. I know this because I’m painfully aware of how lazy I am, and how often I drive my car somewhere when I could easily walk, skateboard, bike, or use one of those electric scooters that everyone in San Francisco loves.

So yeah, everyone just calm the fuck down. If you want to stop eating cookie dough, go for it. Maybe you don’t like it that much anyway, or maybe you’re paranoid and you’re also going to give up all raw fruits and vegetables, and sushi. I mean, sushi! Think of those intestinal parasites you’re risking. So much creepier than a day of diarrhea.

But as for me, I take my joys where I can get them. And when it’s Christmas time, one of my greatest joys is baking my grandmom’s gingerbread cookies. I mean, if I ever get around to putting them in the oven.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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