Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
More flour recalled as FDA doubles down on cookie dough warning

When you’re a kid, few things are better than homemade cookies. Unlike store-bought candy, you get to gobble up any bits of cookie dough stuck to the bowl and beaters, which can be more exciting than the cookies themselves.

Of course, most adults know that you should not eat raw dough because it may contain raw eggs Salmonella. But now there’s something else to worry about: E coli in the flour.

On May 31, General Mills recalled 10 million pounds of flour sold under three brand names after an investigation linked the grain to an outbreak of E coli O121 (you can view the recall information here). On Friday, the company expanded the recall as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported new cases. So far, the tainted flour has sickened 42 and sent 11 to hospital. Although many stem from E coli are harmless, the O121 serotype can lead to symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhoea, often bloody. This E coli can even cause serious illness leading to kidney failure. Young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk for these serious cases.

Amid the flour-based outbreak, the FDA has issued a consumer update renewing its recommendation that both children and adults avoid eating raw dough, including cookie dough. The agency also warned against letting children play with dough and advised consumers to carefully wash their hands and kitchen surfaces after handling raw dough.

For the cookie dough lovers among us, this is hard news to swallow, and you can’t drown your sorrows with your usual cookie dough comfort food. Hoping additional details might ease the pain, Ars reached out to Jenny Scott, a senior advisor at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who answered our pressing questions.

First, why are we hearing about E coli now in flour? Is this new?

The answer is “a little, but not really.”

Studies found E coli and other bacteria in commercial flour as early as the 1990s, although flour was not implicated in outbreaks. It was only a 2009 E coli outbreak caused by ready-to-use commercial cookie dough that researchers labeled flour as the “prime suspect.” That outbreak sickened 77 people in 30 states and led to the death of a Las Vegas woman.

“That was kind of a wake-up call,” Scott said. “We have a lot of new tools to detect outbreaks and be able to trace them to their source, and so we’re picking up more outbreaks in foods that we’re a little surprised at.”

While this may yield some troubling revelations, such as additional warnings for beloved cookie dough, it ultimately allows the agency to find and fix problems. For example, one of the big factors in the current flour-based outbreak wasn’t cookie dough, but restaurants letting kids play with raw dough, such as pizza dough, while they waited for their meal. That, Scott said, doesn’t seem like a good idea unless the kids make sure they wash their hands before eating.

How does E coli even get into flour?

The flour you buy in a supermarket is a raw product that does not go through a sterilization process. Microbes can get into flour at any stage of the manufacturing process. But Scott said the likely source of infection is animals in grain fields. If birds, wildlife or livestock defecate in or near a grain field, gut E coli and other microbes can enter the crop. And there’s nothing in the manufacturing process that takes it out.

After the 2009 cookie dough outbreak, some manufacturers of ready-to-bake dough switched to flour that was sterilized with a heat treatment to prevent such an outbreak from ever happening again, Scott added.

So there’s sterilized flour? How can we get it so we can start making safe safer cookie dough at home?

“There’s heat-treated flour,” Scott said. But “there isn’t enough capacity to heat treat all the flour we use, nor is it necessary.” Most flour is put into foods that are baked and that creates potential contamination — “which is low to begin with, it’s not very common,” she added.

If contaminated flour becomes a bigger problem, manufacturers could consider sterilizing all the flour they produce.

What does the FDA do to make sure our flour is safe?

At the moment, the responsibility lies with the manufacturers, she said. While not the most reassuring answer, new regulations coming into effect this year will require manufacturers to identify, then monitor and control potential hazards. But, she added, most flour manufacturers would probably argue that this isn’t a huge danger worth keeping an eye out for, as raw flour consumption is relatively limited and cases of contamination and illness are rare.

With only two outbreaks in seven years, “that’s a pretty long span of time between outbreaks,” Scott said. And when you consider the potential ways to minimize risk — requiring new treatments for millions of pounds of flour versus getting safer commercially available forms of raw cookie dough and asking people to curb their dough addiction — the latter may seem more reasonable.

So for now, what’s the bottom line?

“Right now, the best advice we can give people is not to eat things that have raw flour in them,” she said. “Flour has a low risk of causing disease; baking certainly minimizes the risk.”

By akfire1

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