Cookie-dough aficionados who've abstained from the raw version to avoid possible food poisoning have gotten their fix safely with cookie dough ice cream. Or so they thought.

The recent recall of Blue Bell Ice Cream’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Cookie Two Step flavors due to possible contamination with listeria monocytogenes has left many wondering whether they’ll ever be able to indulge again.

But according to Cynthia Sears, M.D., professor of medicine at the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it’s probably okay to enjoy other cookie dough ice creams. 

Listeria FAQ

Listeria isn’t as common a cause of foodborne illness as other bacteria, such as E. coli or salmonella. But it is unique in that it can survive and multiply in a range of conditions, including very cold environments.

Most people who become ill from it will suffer the typical food poisoning symptoms. But listeria poses a special risk to pregnant women, who could have a miscarriage or stillbirth if they are infected. It's also more dangerous for the very old, young children and newborns, and people with immune-suppressing conditions.

Cookie dough isn’t more likely to be contaminated with listeria than other foods are (though any cookie dough that is meant to be baked shouldn't be eaten raw). Other foods associated with the bacteria are deli meats, hot dogs and soft cheeses.

But it can thrive in a number of foods. Previous recalls have included frozen fruit and vegetables, hummus and waffles.

This isn’t the first time listeria has been found in Blue Bell ice cream, either. In April 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 2010 and 2015, 10 people had been hospitalized after becoming ill with several strains of listeria after eating Blue Bell’s ice cream products.  

How Did Listeria Get Into Cookie Dough Ice Cream?

No one knows for sure. After Blue Bell found that some of its ice cream tested positive for listeria during a routine scan, the company tested unopened boxes of chocolate chip cookie dough manufactured by third-party supplier Aspen Hills. Blue Bell claims it found listeria in the dough, and that’s what triggered both companies to issue recalls.

No illnesses have been reported. But Jon Austin, a spokesman for Aspen Hills, says that the recalled cookie dough lots tested negative for listeria before they were shipped to Blue Bell. Aspen Hills also says that in the almost 20 years it has been in operation, it has never had a recall for any reason.

Sears says that, in general, listeria contamination can occur at any number of places along the food production line.

One possibility is that low levels of listeria could have been present in the dough before it was shipped to Blue Bell, but Aspen Hills’ testing may not have been sensitive enough to detect it, Sears says. The bacteria could then have multiplied during shipping.

Or there could have been “a break in the cold chain,” meaning that a refrigerator on a truck or in storage could have failed at some point. “There are all sorts of places where there can be a breach in the food chain that can affect whether a food is safe,” she adds.

Sears also notes that it's possible that testing inconsistencies from company to company can cause kinks in the safety line. “If they use different tests, they’re not going to have the same chance of picking it up,” she says. 

What to Do

First off, don’t panic, Sears says. Most cookie dough in ice cream is safe to eat because the flour has been heat-treated and the eggs pasteurized, thus protecting you from such foodborne illnesses as E. coli and salmonella that could be found in homemade cookie dough.

The same goes for slice-and-bake and prepackaged cookie doughs. Though manufacturers such as Nestle do not recommend that you eat such ready-to-bake doughs without baking first, you probably won't get sick if a chunk happens to land in your mouth. That's because the flour and eggs should have gone through those so-called kill steps.

Right now, the most important thing is to make sure you don’t have any of Blue Bell’s recalled products in your freezer, Sears says. That’s especially true if you’re in a vulnerable group. Blue Bell advises returning the product to the store where you bought it for a refund.

The products are: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice creams in half-gallon (code date 082618226) and pint-sized cartons (code dates 081518242 and 082418242), as well as half-gallon cartons of Cookie Two Step (code dates 080418222 and 081818224).

Recalled products were sold in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

If you already ate some of the recalled ice cream, watch for symptoms of food poisoning and see your doctor if they occur. 

Bake the Safe Way

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