Food Safety Month – Baking and Flour Safety

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September is National Food Safety Education Month and this is the 2nd in my series of columns focusing on food safety. Please be part of this “celebration” by sharing this information with others and teaching your children about food safety by role-modeling safe food practices

For years we’ve been told about the potential dangers of licking beaters and spoons
containing raw doughs and batters because of the risk of getting a foodborne illness from the raw eggs. Uncooked eggs may have Salmonella bacteria. While the risk is low (about 1 egg in 10,000) there is still a risk, especially for young children, the elderly, the immune compromised and pregnant women.

It isn’t just cookie dough, it’s any food that contains raw eggs. This includes “health
food” milk shakes and smoothies, homemade Caesar salad dressing, homemade
mayonnaise, some homemade ice cream and eggnog that’s made from recipes in which the eggs are not thoroughly cooked. Even undercooked eggs—like poached and sunny-side-up eggs have a slight risk.

You can make products with raw eggs safe by using pasteurized products. These shell egg and egg products can be safely eaten without cooking. These are available to us in grocery stores—but do usually cost more than unpasteurized eggs—but may be worth it if you have an immune-compromised person in your household.

But now there is another “red flag” related to raw batter and dough. Foodborne
illnesses have been linked to flour. Because flour is made from wheat that is obviously grown outdoors, it does have the potential for containing bacteria. Steps like grinding grain and bleaching flour don’t kill these harmful pathogens—and they can end up in flour or baking mixes you buy at the store. Foodborne illnesses from flour usually doesn’t happen because it is primarily used in foods that are cooked and bacteria are destroyed by heat. But we have been seeing more of it in the past few years.

The primary concern is a deadly bacteria called Escherichia coli (more commonly known as E.coli). Typically E.coli foodborne illness causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and dehydration and most people recover within 3-4 days. While even that can be a long time when you’re the person that’s sick, some strains of E.coli can be much more severe, resulting in a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Again, those folks that are more susceptible to a foodborne illness to should consider
this risk.

So how do people get sick from eating flour? Raw dough and batters are the biggest opportunity. When using baking mixes and other flour-containing products be sure to follow proper cooking temperatures and bake the food for the specified times.

When else might you run across an uncooked or undercooked raw flour product? Think about other uses for flour such as thickening sauces—make sure you heat these foods completely.

Take extra care when it comes to children. Kids love to play with food like raw pizza
dough, pie crust and cut-out cookies and put everything in their mouths—this could lead to an illness. There are also lots of recipes and ideas for craft projects, glue or “clay” made with uncooked flour.

Cross-contamination is also a possible problem. Flour dust spreads easily. Do you empty and completely clean the flour container when you buy new? Do you always wash your hands and work surfaces and utensils after handling flour?

As with eggs, there are methods of heating the flour that can destroy the potentially dangerous bacteria and many flour, cake mix and cookie dough companies are doing this now. Check package labels to see if the product you’re using is safe or if they are meant to be eaten without baking or cooking.

I know I’m being a “spoilsport”; this is not something most of us usually think about— but maybe we should. At least now you know the potential risks with both eggs and flour.

Sources: United States Department of Agriculture and Partnership for Food Safety

Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center 910-253-2610