by Marion Nestle
Jun 27 2009

At last: some clear thinking about cookie dough

OK, so Bill Marler is a class action lawyer* who makes his living from suing companies that produce unsafe food. I’ll grant that he has a vested interest but I admire the way he never loses sight of the harm done to innocent adults and children.  Cookie dough has a warning label on the package and everyone knows you are not supposed to eat raw cookie dough.  If you eat it, it’s your fault if you get sick, right?  See what he has to say about that one.

In Marler’s view, the warning label on commercial raw cookie dough should read something like this:


And, he asks, “Where is the multi-million dollar ad campaign to convince us of the dangers of uncooked cookie dough, like we do for tobacco?”

I would add a few further questions: What are we going to have to do to get a real food safety system in this country?  By real food safety system, I mean one that requires production of all foods – from farm to table – under science-based food safety plans (HACCP with pathogen reduction), overseen by a single federal agency that unites and rationalizes the current functions of USDA and FDA.

Everyone knows how to produce food safely or a lot more safely than is being done now.  If companies don’t bother, it’s because they don’t have to. You don’t like this?  Complain to Congress!

*Correction: See Mr. Marler’s comment below.  He says he mostly represents individuals.   I do apologize for the error.

  • As always – thanks for the “shout out.” Couple of things you said – “OK, so Bill Marler is a class action lawyer” – actually not, I do nearly all cases on an individual, not class action basis.

    And, I don’t understand your point, “… who makes his living from suing companies that produce unsafe food. I’ll grant that he has a vested interest …” Vested interest in what?

    Marion, you were at my speech in 2007 before the spinach and lettuce growers in Salinas when I urged them to “put me out of business.” My “vested interest” is getting companies to stop poisoning us. If it was about the money my “vested interest” would be to would be to keep my mouth shut and let the bodies continue to stack up.


  • That seems like a reasonable warning label, however, it should be placed on all food products that go through the industrial food system, not just cookie dough. The public has been poisoned on fast food burgers, nuts, and even a fresh vegetable: spinach.

  • Janet Camp

    Oh dear, this is the first time I have ever disagreed with you (and it’s only a partial disagreement). Is is Nestle’s fault that only 25% of people know that temperature has anything to do with food safety? Where is the outrage at an educational system that doesn’t teach such basic things as that and the other incredible lack of basic knowledge Marler lists? How can anyone not know that almost anything can be contaminated that has ever been on a “farm” or in the soil, or through a processing plant?

    I have no love for Nestle since way back when they were dumping infant formula on the third world, but it seems reasonable that they do put the warning on the package. The question for me is, did they allow the e-coli to get in through laxness? Was it something avoidable? Are we hoping for ZERO chance of contamination, because I don’t think that’s possible.

    I’m no conservative, but isn’t there a case for some level of personal responsibility in our culture? Having said all that, I can see where a little child might get into the fridge and nab some cookie dough which could be contaminated even if homemade with contaminated eggs, for instance.

    I just don’t see any motive for Nestle to knowingly allow contamination into the cookie dough!

  • Trevor

    From another of Marler’s recent blogs:
    “According to a study by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, fewer than half of the respondents knew that fresh vegetables and fruits could contain harmful bacteria, and only 25% thought that eggs and dairy products could be contaminated. Most consumers believe that food safety hazards can be seen or smelled. Only 25% of consumers surveyed knew that cooking temperatures were critical to food safety, and even fewer knew that foods should be refrigerated promptly after cooking. Consumers do not expect that things that you cannot see in your food can kill you.”

  • Mary

    I’m for all food testing, farm to table, under science-based food safety plans. And that means everything. There’s a whole bunch of organic foodies who think raw milk is directly from heaven and beyond bacterial reproach, and some who think plant mutagenesis and hybridization don’t affect genes.

  • Kris

    I believe the question is can we trust our food supply or should we, the consumer, be wholly responsible for everything we put in our mouth. It’s a little of both. If we vote with our dollars, and purchase those things like local, organically farmed food and throw off the big-box supermarket veggies, we take our health into our hands and take responsibility. However, once you begin to purchase things from the store that you might make in your own home, there is a reasonable expectation that the food provided is as safe as you would make it at home. Now, I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t put feces into my cookie dough. I would not expect a manufacturer to as well.

    As to Raw Milk, if someone has ever been to a certified raw milk dairy, they are FAR cleaner and healthier than commercial dairies and I trust them far, far more than I do big agra dairies.

  • The problem with science-based food safety plans are whose science do you buy. If it is big industry guiding the government then our health and that of the landscape will suffer. Right now in the Salinas Valley, most leafy green growers are forced to have sterile farm situations – those that don’t allow grasses and wildlife habitat nearby – because the buyers and shippers misguidedly say this makes food safe. On the surface, sterile farm situations are an easy sell, but studies show that non-crop vegetation filters pathogens and other pollutants, and that wildlife are a low food safety risk. Additionally, removing habitat that supports beneficial insects and cleans water means more use of toxic pesticides and more runoff of pollutants.

    Instead of rolling back sustainable farming practices, which have produced crops safely for eons, the focus should be on newly emerged risks – confined cattle operations because they are the source of E.coli O157: H7, and processed crops like bagged leafy greens because they have lots of cut surfaces, are washed in huge batches, and easily heat up inside the bag. One size does not fit all, and HACCP plans will be a bureaucratic nightmare for many farmers who are not producing risky products.

  • Bill Marler didn’t mention that he also has established a nonprofit that works with food companies to prevent foodborne illness (see For many years, I’ve worked with lawyers who, like Bill, make their living by taking on corporate crimes. In almost every case, these lawyers could easily go to the other side and double or triple their earnings by defending corporate criminals. They don’t because their “vested interest” is to use the law to stop corporate crime-since sadly lawsuits are often the only tool the public has to maintain any control on corporate conduct.

  • Marion

    @Charles–Thanks Charles for your comment on Bill Marler. I deeply admire his work and think than he is doing extraordinary public service and filling the gap you mention. I’m sorry if I gave any other impression. And it’s really good to hear from you.