The Nestle Toll House “Break & Bake” Recall: How Does Wood End Up in Cookie Dough, Anyway?

A food safety expert explains how this "foreign material" could have made its way into a batch of popular chocolate chip cookies you find in the chilled case.

We don’t think of those legacy grocery-store brands often having food safety errors, but on August 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published Nestlé USA’s announcement about their voluntary recall of Nestlé USA Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough “break and bake” bars. Representatives for the company said they were issuing the recall “out of an abundance of caution after a small number of consumers contacted Nestlé USA” about “the potential presence of wood fragments.”

The announcement noted that no consumers had reported any health issues to date, but the occasional brand-name recall like this can cause questions: How do “foreign materials” make their way into manufactured supermarket products?

We’ll back up, in case this affects your groceries: The US Food and Drug Administration announced that Nestlé USA initiated a voluntary recall of two batches of the “break and bake” bars produced on April 24 and 25, 2023 with batch codes 311457531K and 311557534K due to presence of wood. The company reported this recall does not involve any other Nestlé Toll House products.

“This is an exceedingly rare occurrence, especially in a facility as large as Nestle’s manufacturing center,” says Keith R. Schneider, PhD, a food safety expert and professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The presence of foreign debris makes up a small segment of recalls compared to bacterial contamination.”

That’s somewhat reassuring, perhaps…but how could wood have gotten into the cookie dough? There are a few potential scenarios, Dr. Schneider tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest.

Dr. Schneider floats a few possible explanations: It could be splintering from a wood pallet or flat transport structure that supports packaged cookie dough while being lifted by a forklift. In this case, the contamination with wood would have occurred after packaging if wood cut through the plastic wrapping.

Another scenario? “It’s possible that a large wooden spoon that was used to transport batter could have splintered, but most equipment is made of stainless steel,” he notes.

The wood could also come from raw ingredients. “If flour is milled, wood may have gotten into the milling process,” Dr. Schneider speculates.

There is not a lot of information available on the size of wood fragments. “It could be sawdust that found its way into the batter from a wooden walkway,” Dr. Schneider says.

Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City, agrees that foods can get contaminated with strange items like wood in a variety of ways during preparation, storage or distribution. “Pieces of wood could have gotten into the batch from the surface it came in contact with,” she adds.

Now, the company will do a traceability study to see if they can find the answers. Nestle is working with the FDA on this voluntary recall.  The FDA is asking consumers who purchased these products to return them to the place of purchase for a refund or a replacement or to call Nestlé USA at (800) 681-1678.

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.