The details are starting to come to light surrounding the General Mills Outbreak and recalls, involving flour tainted with E. Coli. The CDC is linking additional cases to the strain of E. Coli found in the contaminated flour.
On July 25, 2016, the CDC issued another update to the E. coli outbreak linked to flour produced by General Mills. The CDC reports four more cases of illness associated with the outbreak reported since the last update. These illnesses have been occurring for a long time, with the first cases beginning in December 2015.
The most recent case began on June 29, 2016. There are now a total of 46 people infected with E. coli, after consuming food items containing contaminated flour. Those sickened in the outbreak range in age from 1 year to 95 years old. The median age of those affected is 18. Women account for about 80% of those with E. coli poisoning. The CDC reports 13 people have been hospitalized, and no reported deaths. One person reported developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious side effect of an E. coli infection. The CDC warns that the actual case count of the outbreak may be higher than 46, as illnesses that began after June 29, 2016, may have not been reported yet. A case of food poisoning typically takes between 2 and 3 weeks to be reported to the CDC.
The news reported in its July 25th update that another serotype of E. coli was detected. E. coli, like many bacteria, has a myriad of serotypes, or strains. These strains differ slightly from each other, but are still considered E. coli bacteria. Most of the time, an outbreak is caused by just one serotype of a bacteria, although in some cases there may be multiple serotypes associated with an outbreak. In the General Mills outbreak, 45 of those sickened tested positive for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O121, or STEC O121. One person is infected with the other serotype linked to this outbreak, STEC O26.
The outbreak has caused illnesses in 21 different states. States affected by the outbreak include Alabama with 1 case, Arkansas with 1 case, Arizona with 2 cases, California with 2 cases, Colorado with 4 cases, Iowa with 1 case, Illinois with 4 cases, Indiana with 1 case, Massachusetts with 2 cases, Maryland with 1 case, Michigan with 4 cases, Minnesota with 5 cases, Missouri with 1 case, Montana with 2 cases, New York with 1 case, Oklahoma with 2 cases, Pennsylvania with 2 cases, Texas with 2 cases, Virginia with 2 cases, Washington with 3 cases, and Wisconsin with 3 cases.
There have been several different recalls made in relation to the outbreak. The first recall was made on May 31, 2016, when General Mills recalled 9 flour products. The recall was expanded on July 1, 2016 after illnesses occurred that were not caused by flour included in the recall. The first expansion added a product and widened the range of production dates associated with the recall. At around this time, the investigation was able to pinpoint the Kansas City, Missouri facility owned by General Mills as the source of the E. coli contamination. On July 25, 2016, the recall was expanded again, this time to increase, again, the range of production dates affected by the recall. There have also been several secondary recalls associated with the contaminated flour. A complete list of recalled products can be found here.
What is E. Coli and How Does It Affect People?
Escherichia coli is a family of bacteria that is found in many different environments. Strains of E. coli bacteria can be found in the soil, water, and the intestines of many animals, including humans. While some serotypes of E. coli are harmless, or even beneficial to humans, other serotypes produce Shiga toxins, which can cause illness. E. coli poisoning is a fairly common form of foodborne illness, causing about 265,000 cases of illness according to the CDC. E. coli infections are generally caused by consuming contaminated food or water. Food items that are commonly contaminated with E. coli bacteria include cattle, goats, elk, deer, and sheep. Occasionally, E. coli infections can be caused by birds, pigs, or other farm products.
If a person consumes contaminated food or water, they may develop a case of E. coli poisoning. E. coli infections have an incubation period between 1 and 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. The incubation period serves as an indicator of how long the bacteria will be in someone’s body before producing symptoms. Despite the incubation period for E. coli being as long as 10 days, most infections produce symptoms within 3 or 4 days. When the infection surfaces, it will likely produce symptoms including fever, bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting. Most of the time, the illness will last between 5 and 7 days, although there is the chance that it will worsen. Sometimes, a side effect of the infection, called hemolytic uremic syndrome, occurs.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, is a severe side effect that develops in 5 to 10% of cases. HUS damages red blood cells in the body. This damage prompts the body to filter those blood cells from the bloodstream. The kidneys filter the damaged cells from the blood, but in the process the kidneys are damaged as well. HUS can cause severe kidney damage, and even kidney failure. It is especially important to seek medical attention if anyone infected with E. coli begins to show the symptoms of HUS, including decreased frequency of urination, loss of color in the cheeks and lower eyelids, and fatigue.
Although E. coli poisoning can affect anyone, there are certain risk factors that make infection more likely. Children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are all at an increased risk of developing a serious E. coli infection. These groups are also more likely to develop HUS. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, contact a medical professional. A doctor can confirm the presence of E. coli bacteria through the testing of a stool sample. Rest and hydration are important to recovery, although your doctor may make further recommendations to treat the illness.
As of the date of this post, the state, local, and governmental authorities, including the CDC, are still investigating the General Mills flour outbreak. We will continue to update as the details of the investigation unfold.