By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Bakers all have their secrets. Some believe a little extra butter makes a perfectly crisp cookie or a dash of brown sugar takes a frosting from dull to amazing. No matter what the secret ingredient or process, bakers delight in crafting delicious confections for everyone to enjoy. Lately, however, the baking process has been anything but delightful. What if the secret ingredient to your grandma’s apple pie was not shortening, but instead E Coli? This is just the ingredient discovered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this last month to be linked to flour.

On May 31, 2016, General Mills announced that they are collaborating with the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigations concerning a string of illnesses involving Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E Coli) O121 linked to their products. General Mills, the food producer related to Gold Medal, Gold Medal Wondra, and Signature Kitchens brands, initially claimed on their website that E Coli had not been found in any of their products. They claimed the recall was merely “out of an abundance of caution.” The President of General Mills Baking Division Liz Nordie issued the following statement to General Mill’s consumers:

“As a leading provider of flour for 150 years, we felt it was important to not only recall the product and replace it for consumers if there was any doubt, but also to take this opportunity to remind our consumers how to safely handle flour.”

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In an update on their website on June 11, 2016, they retracted their prior statement and confirmed that a sample of recalled flour tested positive for E Coli O121.

Ongoing Investigation

In or about November of 2015, the FDA commenced an investigation into several illnesses relating to raw dough made from General Mills flour. The contaminated flour was ingested by a group of restaurant patrons or handled by restaurant employees. Through interviews and onsite inspections of the restaurant, it was determined that the General Mills flour had been produced in November of 2015, purportedly at their Kansas City, Missouri processing facility.

The FDA, in its interview process, was able to obtain samples from those stricken with illness to determine that the bacterium was confirmed E Coli O121. Epidemiologists using the latest scientific methods of gel electrophoresis were able to map the DNA of the E Coli strain and relate this strain not only to the other ill people, but also to the restaurant. Upon further investigations at the restaurant, the FDA was able to determine that the Kansas City, Missouri facility for General Mills was the source of the contamination.

On May 31, 2016, the FDA and the CDC held a meeting with General Mills to present their findings. During this meeting, General Mills commenced a voluntary recall of all of their flour products produced between November 14, 2015 and December 4, 2015. The flour was sold under the brands of Gold Medal flour, Signature Kitchens flour and Gold Medal Wondra flour and in retailers such as: Safeway, Albertsons, Jewel, Shaws, Vons, United, Randalls, and Acme. The flours subject to the recall vary in size and weight. For a full listing of all of the products involved in the recall, you can visit the CDC’s website for the recall here.

On June 10, 2016, the FDA announced that the genome sequencing from the sample flour collected at General Mills’ Kansas City, Missouri facility confirmed E. coli O121 was closely related to the samples collected from those interviewed that were sick.

As of the date of this post, there are 38 confirmed cases of those infected with E. coli O121, ten of which have been hospitalized, in 20 different states. The states include:  Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. We at Unsafe Foods are happy to note that none of those afflicted with the illness have succumbed to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and no deaths have been reported at this time.

Since the June 10, 2016 announcement, no other expansions have been made to the recalls by General Mills or any other flour companies at this time.

What is E Coli and How Can This Outbreak Affect Me?

Escherichia coli, or E Coli, is a bacterium that is naturally found in the environment and in the digestive systems of humans and animals. Most serotypes of E Coli are harmless to humans and do not cause sickness. Other strains can cause a wide array of illnesses from respiratory problems to gastrointestinal infection. Currently, there are six pathotypes that are known to cause gastrointestinal infections, one of these is the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli related to the current outbreak.

E Coli is typically diagnosed through a simple stool or fecal test conducted by a primary care physician. Most people infected with E Coli will exhibit symptoms of diarrhea and abdominal cramps within two to eight days after ingestion of the bacteria. These persons will usually recover from illness within a week.

However, E Coli can become more severe in some cases. The infection can develop into Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which is a type of kidney failure that could have long-term consequences or could lead to death. Children under the age of five are most at risk for developing HUS, but anyone could develop the affliction. The symptoms of HUS include: abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, fever, fatigue, decreased urination, dehydration, pale skin, and unexplained bruises and bleeding. The FDA and CDC recommend that anyone exhibiting these symptoms immediately seek medical treatment from an emergency healthcare facility.

How Can I Protect Myself?

As the recall is ongoing and the outbreak has not been declared over, the best action for the consumer is to check their pantry to ensure that they are not in possession of any recalled flour. Flour, like most pantry staples, has a long shelf-life. There is a possibility that consumers may still be in possession of contaminated flour in their homes. If it is discovered that you are in possession of potentially contaminated flour, it is recommended that you dispose of it and thoroughly clean your kitchen.

The FDA was able to trace the illnesses related to the recall to the ingestion and handling of raw dough and batter. Therefore, it is recommended in this case, and in all cases when raw dough is involved, that consumers understand the proper safety precautions. Consumers should never eat raw dough, batter, or other raw products containing flour. As tempting as it may be to “taste” a batter before it is baked, it is best to refrain from doing so. Children especially should refrain from playing with raw dough.

It is also a great idea to practice good hygiene and kitchen cleaning as mentioned in our latest Listeria post here.

We will continue to advise our readers of the updates relating to this outbreak and recall as more information becomes available.