Cookie dough shortage possible as Nestle uses anti-E. coli treatment

A move to make Nestlé refrigerated cookie doughs even safer may result in a temporary shortage of the popular tubes of chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar and specialty doughs.

The company announced Wednesday that it will begin using heat-treated flour in its refrigerated doughs “to enhance the safety of the product,” spokeswoman Laurie MacDonald says.

Nestlé made the move in early January after routine testing found two samples of cookie dough from its Danville, Va., facility tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, which can cause severe illness. Laboratory tests confirmed the findings Monday, says MacDonald. All dough produced just before and after the tainted production run was destroyed and none was shipped to stores, she says.

The Food and Drug Administration continues to examine “what Nestlé is doing in its manufacturing processes involving cookie dough or any other food intended for cooking,” says spokesman Thomas Gasparoli.

The news comes eight months after 72 people in 30 states were infected with E. coli O157:H7 linked to eating raw Nestlé cookie dough. Despite multiple tests, Nestlé has been unable to pinpoint the source of the E. coli in the product. While the company contends its dough is safe, “This change will only further enhance the safety of our products,” says Paul Bakus, general manager of Nestlé USA Baking Group.

The flour, which Nestlé buys from a supplier, is subjected to brief, high heat to kill possible salmonella and E. coli. To make the switch to the new flour, Nestlé will have to temporarily suspend production in Danville, where most of its refrigerated cookie dough is made. Production will resume the week of Jan. 25, and the product will begin to appear on shelves in early March, Bakus says.

Heat-treated flour bakes up slightly differently, so it took several months for Nestlé food scientists to formulate new recipes that had the same taste and texture. Tasting panels found that the new cookies “have the same great taste,” MacDonald says.

The new flour doesn’t mean that consumers should eat the cookie dough raw. “Nestlé strongly advises that cookie dough should not be eaten raw, and to bake our products before consuming,” Bakus says.

Consumers don’t need to start treating flour like raw chicken, experts says. Flour is a raw agricultural product, notes food-safety expert Carl Custer, a retired microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Take reasonable care, but don’t go nuts,” he says.

In general, flour is not considered dangerous. However, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Food Protection did find salmonella contamination in 0.14% to 1.32% of wheat flour samples. A 1993 study in the journal Cereal Foods World found that 12.8% of wheat samples were positive for generic E. coli, which is harmless but can indicate contamination with animal fecal matter.

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