Although not really a good defense in the arenas of law or common sense, I was struck by how quickly Nestle suggested that the consumers sickened by eating their contaminated cookie dough were themselves at fault for ignoring the recommendation on the label that the cookies be “bake before consuming.” What most struck me as most odd (and indefensible) about Nestle’s suggestion that the consumer was to blame, is how incongruous it is for Nestle to say that its product was too dangerous to be eaten raw when it manufactures its cookie dough with pasteurized eggs. Prior to this outbreak, few (if any) would have argued that the risk of eating raw cookie dough, to the extent that it was risky at all, came from anything other than the risk of Salmonella poisoning due to the presence of raw eggs. But Nestle had plainly chosen to eliminate that risk. And my guess is that they did so specifically because they knew (and encouraged) people to eat the cookie dough while it was raw, a guilty pleasure of lots and lots of people.
With this in mind I decided to look at some of the research on the consumption of raw cookie dough. Not surprising (to me), the perception of raw cookie dough as being unsafe is not only based primarily on the presence of raw eggs, and thus Salmonella, that is the SOLE basis for the perceived risk. Look at this question posed as part of a survey of school children that attempted to determine the knowledge of food safety risks:
TRUE or FALSE:
It is okay to eat raw cookie dough—(1) Anytime. The raw eggs will not hurt you. (2) Only if the cookie dough is store bought. (3) Only if the cookie dough is homemade. (4) Never. Raw cookie dough puts you at risk for Salmonellosis.
(See Richards 2008, below). Plainly, this question presupposes not only that Salmonella is the primary risk created by cookie dough, but that raw eggs solely creates the risk. Thus, no doubt, the food safety educators who did this survey would have been thrilled if the students vowed to only eat raw cookie dough so long as it was made with pasteurized eggs.
The other thing that is odd (and indefensible) about Nestle’s stated defense is that most people of relatively good health, who are not too young or old, and with a non-compromised immune system, eat raw cookie dough, even if made with unpasteurized eggs, and not face a significant risk of illness—certainly not a serious one. That is why, if you look at many of the studies that I have included in bibliography below, it will become quickly apparent that the food safety education that is being aimed at the elderly and immune-compromised is solely aimed at avoiding the risk of a Salmonella infection caused by exposure to raw eggs in cookie dough. These citations also ably demonstrate that no one would have previously said that a person eating raw cookie dough faced a risk of being infected with a pathogen as deadly as E. coli O157:H7. For Nestle to suggest otherwise is like someone saying that you should wear a seatbelt when driving because meteor might crash into your car.
Consequently, I think Nestle probably should restate its position, that is, if it wants to appear anything else but insensitive and oblivious. The presence of E. coli O157:H7 in raw cookie dough was never the risk that the recommendation of “bake before consuming” was intended to prevent. If Nestle had wanted to warn against that risk, the recommendation should have been: Danger: This Product May Kill You If Not Handled With Extraordinary Care.
Partial Bibliography for the Discussion Above:
Julie Albrecht, Food Safety Knowledge and Practices of Consumers in the U.S.A., Int’l Jnl. of Consumer Studies, 19(2), pp. 119-34 (2007) (documenting that a low percentage of people perceived eating cookie dough as a health risk, and that those that did perceive it as a risk did so because of presence of raw eggs in the dough).
Julie A. Albrecht & Alice Henneman, Handling Eggs Safely at Home, Nebraska Cooperative Extension Publication, NF91-33 (1991) (warning that “Eggs in cookie dough and cake batter are raw and dough and batter should not be eaten”)
Marcus Comer, Food Safety for Healthy Families: Evaluation of Program Effectiveness, 40(4) (Aug. 2002) (discussing a “heated debate” among students as to whether eating cake batter or cookie dough was dangerous, and finding that students “held to the belief that eating [it] would not make a person sick and stated that they would continue the practice”).
Cynthia Dols, et al., Preventing Food and Water-borne Illnesses, American Jnl. of Nursing, 101(6), 24AA-24KK (June 2001) (stating that the teaching of immune-compromised patients about food safety risks should include a warning that “during preparation, foods should not be tasted until they are thoroughly cooked (including raw cookie dough)” because of the presence of raw eggs).
Joye Gordon, et al., Risk Perception, Attitudes, Knowledge and Safe Food Handling Behavior Among Those 65 Years and Older, Proceedings of the 20th Annual Conference of Association for International Agricultural Extension Education, Ireland,(2004) 20, 724-734,
I. Hapala & C. Probart, Food Safety Knowledge, Perceptions, and Behaviors Among Middle School Students, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 36 (2), 71-76 (study finding that, among middle school students surveyed, only 46% reported not seldom eating food items containing raw eggs, with raw cookie dough being used as the example).
Katherine MacComas, Psychological Factors Influencing People’s Reactions to Risk Information, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food Safety Risk Analysis Clearinghouse, Presentation, (1999) (making point that “When deciding whether to eat raw cookie dough, an individual may choose between the pleasure of eating the dough versus the risks of contracting salmonella poisoning), at http://www.foodrisk.org/exclusives/RC_tutorials/
Jennifer Richards, et al., Validation of an Interdisciplinary Food Safety Curriculum Targeted at Middle School Students and Correlated to State Educational Standards, Jnl. of Food Science Education, 7(3), 54-61 (2008) (study that analyzed self-reported food behaviors of middle school students, including asking them if: “It is okay to eat raw cookie dough,” with the choices of answers being—anytime. The raw eggs will not hurt you; only if the cookie dough is store bought; only if the cookie dough is homemade; never. Raw cookie dough puts you at risk for salmonellosis.”).
Tionni Wennrich, et al., Food Safety Knowledge and Practices of Low Income Adults in Pennsylvania, Food Protection Trends, 23(4), 326, at 332 (2003) (documenting that the “foods prepared with raw eggs, such as raw cookie dough, were the most commonly eaten high-risk food by survey respondents”).
Mary Wilson, et al., Survey of Food Safety Behaviour in Nevada Child Caregivers, Int’l Jnl. of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, 1(2), 116-26 (2008) (finding that people from two rural regions had a higher preference, by 11 and 16%, for eating raw cookie dough, compared to people from two other regions).