Can I eat raw cookie dough?

“Is it safe?” is the wrong question. |  Hans  for Pixabay

“Is it safe?” is the wrong question. | Hans for Pixabay

The CDC’s annual holiday warning sparked a raw cookie dough poetry slam from some unlikely lyricists.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb opened with a Seussified list of demands:

You can not eat it in a house.
You can not eat it with a mouse.
We do not like it here or there.
We do not like it anywhere.
We do not like raw chocolate chip cookie dough,
we do not like it, #FDA we are.

Even though Gottlieb didn’t achieve the tightness of the original text (he used 23 words in one stanza, while Seuss used just 50 in total), Green Eggs and Ham was a creative and memorable way to urge us to resist our dough-eating impulses. Then again, it wasn’t the best inspiration for a warning against trying raw cookie dough, because the generous reading of Seuss is that we should try things (“You do not like them./So you say./Try them! Try them!/And you may.”).

But the problem for some critics was neither Gottlieb’s word count nor his mixed message. It was his reliance on blanket statements about safety.

For his turn at the mic, Medicine Professor Brian Zikmund-Fischer spun sixteen rhyming couplets about risk assessment. Risk, he reminds us, is everywhere: “We face some risk most every day/In sushi, burgers, games we play./We can’t prevent all risk of harm./ Food risks exist on every farm.”

In the face of this risk, Zikmund-Fisher counsels thoughtful, personalized risk calculations (“So if raw dough makes you rejoice/Accepting risk might be a choice.”)

The two poets highlight an important issue for holiday bakers and other risk takers. Gottlieb, like Sam-I-Am, relies upon because-I-said-so authority: “we do not like it, FDA we are.” That same kind of authority infleunces a less-generous reading of Green Eggs and Ham. We may think of it as a simply worded lesson about trying new things. But we can also read it as the story of a home invader making outrageous demands and coercing compliance through harassment…kind of like a health organization making blanket statements about entire categories of food.

Zikmund-Fisher takes a different approach, laying out the risks involved in consuming raw eggs and raw flour, offering ways to make each of these ingredients safer, but ultimately leaving the risk assessment to individuals who should balance the unlikely chance of illness against the pleasure of eating raw dough.

So, can you eat raw cookie dough? Is it safe?

Gottlieb’s answer is that there’s some risk to eating raw cookie dough; therefore, it’s not safe and no one should eat it.

Zikmund-Fisher’s answer is that “is it safe?” is the wrong question. We should not be looking to institutions to tell us what is safe and not safe. Instead, our institutions should help us calculate risk.

Zikmund-Fisher’s answer means that each of us has to do two things:

First, identify the actual risks involved. We can’t decide whether or not a risk is acceptable to us if we don’t know what that risk is, how likely it is to happen, and how severe it will be if it does happen. I’ve written about both of the main suspects in raw cookie dough here on snackdinner. For eggs, the risk is salmonella, and some estimates put the risk of salmonella infection around 1 in 20,000 eggs. For flour, it’s E.coli, and the rate of infection is much smaller than that for salmonella.

Second, determine your personal risk tolerance. Instead of asking yourself Is raw cookie dough safe?, ask Is the risk of raw cookie dough worth the reward? How comfortable are you with the possible symptoms of E.coli and salmonella? How much do you desire eating that glob of sugar-crystal-filled dough? Is the reward of one worth accepting the risk of the other? Those are questions that only you can answer, because one person’s “risky” is another person’s “insanely cautious.”

I’m with Zikmund-Fisher here, not just because I’ve never used just 50 words to say anything or because he’ll let me eat the cookie dough, but because of the nuanced approach to decision-making. Is it safe? is the question that drives nearly all readers to snackdinner. Is raw dough safe? Are Gerber Puffs safe? Are puffy coats safe? Are outlet covers safe? What about romaine lettuce, my laundry detergent, and Sophie the giraffe? Balloons? Raccoons?

The problem with asking “is it safe?” is that you can never stop asking, because every new item in your house might be a hazard waiting to kill your kid. Identifying and assessing your own risk tolerance can free you to focus on the truly big risks and relish the small risks that bring joy to you or your family.