Baking is a great family activity for all ages during the holidays. And with the allure of the sweet aromas, it’s easy to be tempted to taste a bite before the cookies, brownies, cakes or bread have been cooked.
Just last year E. coli illnesses were linked to the consumption of raw cake batter. 16 people were infected with E. coli O121 in 12 states. One of those 16 was an 11-year-old girl in Utah, named Harlee.
According to the CDC, in July 2021, Harlee began to experience stomach pain and as the weekend went on, Harlee’s symptoms worsened, and she couldn’t sleep from the pain. Her mom, Errin, took her daughter to the doctor, where she was given antibiotics and sent home. However, it soon became clear to Errin that Harlee’s illness was much more serious when her symptoms got worse.
Harlee’s family took her to a second doctor for more tests and eventually headed to the emergency room. Doctors diagnosed Harlee with an E. coli infection. Harlee’s infection was so serious that she was admitted to the hospital, where she stayed for three days.
“It was really scary. When we finally took her to the hospital, she was crying, and wouldn’t stop crying. I just wanted someone to fix her,” said Errin.
While Harlee was in the hospital, Errin got a call from the local health department. They told her that Harlee’s E. coli infection was part of a multistate outbreak linked to cake batter. “That’s when they started asking me about cake mix,” Errin recalled. “I would not have even thought about that.”
Harlee baked a cake the week before her symptoms started, but before putting the cake in the oven, she tasted some of the raw batter.
“I knew you could get sick from raw eggs, but I would have never thought flour in cake mix,” said Errin.
Outbreaks from flour, a raw ingredient in cake mix, have happened before. In 2016 and 2019, CDC investigated E. coli outbreaks linked to flour that led to more than 80 people getting sick and 20 people being hospitalized.
After she was released from the hospital, it took some time for Harlee to fully recover from her infection. “It was scary. She was just praying that she would make it through,” said Errin. Thankfully, Harlee made a full recovery and is back to enjoying sports and the outdoors with her family.
While flour might not look like raw food, most flour is raw. That means it hasn’t been treated to kill germs that cause food poisoning.
These harmful germs can contaminate grain while it’s still in the field or flour while it’s being made. Steps like grinding grain and bleaching flour don’t kill harmful germs—and these germs can end up in flour or baking mixes you buy at the store. You can get sick if you eat unbaked dough or batter made with flour containing germs. Germs are killed only when flour is baked or cooked.
Raw eggs are another ingredient in dough and batter that can make you or your loved ones sick. Raw and lightly cooked eggs can contain Salmonella, a germ that causes food poisoning.
Some companies make edible cookie dough and brownie batter that you can find in stores. These products are made with heat-treated flour and pasteurized eggs or no eggs. Read the label carefully to make sure the dough is meant to be eaten without baking or cooking.
Harlee and Errin are telling their story to help other families avoid going through what they experienced. When you bake, don’t eat or taste raw dough or batter. It’s not worth the risk and can make you seriously sick. “It tastes good, but it’s not worth it!” Harlee said.
Tips from the CDC to stay safe when handling flour and other raw ingredients
Follow these practices to prevent food poisoning when you are baking and cooking with flour and other raw ingredients.
- Do not taste or eat any raw dough or batter. This includes dough or batter for cookies, brownies, cakes, pie crusts, tortillas, pizza, biscuits, pancakes, or crafts made with raw flour, such as homemade play dough or holiday ornaments.
- Do not let children play with or eat raw dough, including dough for crafts.
- Bake raw dough, such as cookie dough, and batter, such as cake mix, before eating.
- Follow the recipe or package directions for cooking or baking. Use the temperature and cooking time given in the recipe or directions.
- Do not make milkshakes with products that contain raw eggs or raw flour, such as cake mix or cookie dough.
- Do not use raw homemade cookie dough in ice cream.
- Cookie dough ice cream sold in stores contains dough that has been treated to kill harmful germs.
- Keep raw foods, such as flour and eggs, separate from ready-to-eat foods. Because flour is a powder, it can spread easily.
- Follow label directions to refrigerate products containing raw dough or eggs until they are baked or cooked (for example, store-bought cookie dough).
- Clean up thoroughly after handling flour, eggs, or raw dough.
- Wash your hands with soap and water after handling flour, raw eggs, or any surfaces they have touched.
- Wash bowls, utensils, countertops, and other surfaces with hot, soapy water.
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