Dozens of people are recovering from E. coli infections in the midst of a recall of millions of pounds of flour linked to their illnesses, but nothing new is in the works to prevent such outbreaks in the future.
Industry and government officials have expressed concern for the victims — 10 of whom had such severe symptoms they had to be admitted to hospitals — but they lay the blame for the illnesses on end users of the flour.
Consumers and restaurant operators should know better than to allow anyone to eat or handle raw dough or raw batter, according to statements from industry and government. The officials say everyone knows flour is a raw agriculture product and as such it needs to be cooked to kill pathogens such as E. coli, which are generally expected to be present in raw foods.
Such information is likely of little comfort to the 38 people, ranging in age from 1- to 95-years-old, who have been sickened by the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 that the Food and Drug Administration has found in General Mills Inc. flour.
Additional outbreak victims are likely to be identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent information on the outbreak, which was posted June 1 and included illnesses confirmed through May 3.
In an unusual sequence of events, General Mills — not the CDC — announced the outbreak on May 31 when it recalled 10 million pounds of flour from retailers and restaurants. Announcements followed from the Food and Drug Administration and CDC.
While it was immediately revealed that the recalled flour had been sent to retailers and restaurants nationwide, neither the FDA nor General Mills admitted it had also been distributed — in unrevealed amounts — to General Mills corporate customers for use in the production of other foods until Food Safety News asked about possible bulk shipments.
It remains unknown what foods the recalled flour may have been used to produce. Neither General Mills nor the FDA would reveal what food companies received the flour, citing proprietary business interests.
FDA officials said they were aware of the bulk shipments and are monitoring the recall of them. FDA officials contend the public did not need to know about that aspect of the recall because the products were not available to, or identifiable by, consumers.
Potential solutions not in the mix
Although there are at least two options to kill pathogens in flour and the wheat it is made from — heat treating and irradiation — neither the FDA nor industry are pursuing them. Except, years ago the Nestle Co. began heat treating flour used in its raw cookie dough products after those products were linked to an outbreak in 2009.
“Frankly, most consumers have no idea that flour is a potentially hazardous substance. I commended Nestle for taking the step to use heat-treated flour post the devastating E. coli outbreak in 2009,” said Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler.
“It is now time for all flour manufacturers to step up and create a safe product, or at a minimum, put a large warning label on each bag: ‘DANGER, product may contain a pathogen that can kill you or your child. Handle with extreme caution.’ ”
The North American Millers’ Association declined to provide comments on labeling, heat treating, irradiation or any other topic for this news story. Based in Washington D.C., the group “represents the milling industry with the federal government and Congress,” according to its website.
A spokesmen for General Mills said because raw flour is sold as a baking ingredient, the company does not heat treat it.
“Heat treating the flour would impact its performance such as rising properties,” said Mike Simians, General Mills brand manager.
An official with the American Institute of Baking (AIB) in Manhattan, KS, also said heat treating is not a good option for the vast majority of flour produced because it can negatively impact baking properties.
“Heat treating diminishes the functional aspects of the flour’s protein structure,” said Brian Strouts, vice president of baking and food technical services at AIB. “You can use it to make cookies, but it (heat-treated flour) doesn’t work so well for bread and other foods.”
Strouts said the current outbreak and recall are generating a lot of discussion in the flour and baking industries, but little can be done to improve safety, especially when it comes to consumers’ habits. He said one lesson learned from the 2009 outbreak was that even more people than initially thought indulge in tasting and out right eating raw dough and batter.
“One survey showed 80 percent of people eat raw cookie dough,” he said.
Ongoing research funded by industry and AIB continues to show that baking temperatures are generally high enough to kill pathogens present in raw flour, Strouts said. But other than heat treating and irradiation — which is not currently approved by the FDA as a pathogen kill step — there isn’t much industry can do on the production end of things.
General Mills spokesman Mike Seimienas had similar comments, and reiterated that FDA inspectors had not found the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 in the facility that produced the recalled General Mills, Wondra and Signature Kitchen branded flour.
A third treatment option, patented and kept under wraps by Ardent Mills of Denver, is said to remove foodborne pathogens from raw flour, but the company will not reveal what is involved in the process. It also does not use the process on all of its flour, but only on SafeGuard branded flour, which is sold at a premium price.
“The (SafeGuard) flour is milled in a closed system, where it undergoes our proprietary, all-natural treatment,” said Kent Juliot, Ardent Mills vice president of research, quality and technical solutions. “Our SafeGuard flour goes through a series of validated, precise controls that deliver up to a 5-log reduction in pasteurization-like conditions.”
As for irradiation, Juliot said Ardent Mills has not and is not examining that option as a possible kill step for raw flour. He did not offer details on why.
Irradiation already OK’d by FDA for many foods
Some food safety experts say the unfortunate combination of an uninformed public and corporate greed are standing in the way of a safer food supply, and the current E. coli outbreak linked to raw flour is an excellent case in point.
“I definitely think there is a need to seriously look at irradiation of flour very soon,” said Ron Eustice, a consultant who retired from the Minnesota Beef Council in October 2013 after more than 22 years of service in the state’s beef industry.
“I’m confident that irradiation would have prevented this current situation with flour.”
In his decades of work with irradiation of beef, Eustice has seen the process — which does not cause food to be radioactive — be embraced by not only the Minnesota Beef Council and Minnesota Department of Health, but also numerous businesses.
Huiskens Meats, Omaha Steaks, Schwan’s Food Service and the Northeast grocery chain Wegmans Food Markers all use irradiation to prevent the risk of pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella in ground beef.
Eustice also points to the ongoing irradiation of several imposed fresh fruits and vegetables as another example of how the technology is already making Americans’ food safer. Some imported produce is required by FDA to be irradiated to destroy pests that could threaten domestic crops.
Such pest control irradiation has been an approved, and for some commodities FDA required, process for decades. Wheat and other grains undergo irradiation as a pest control step with absolutely no impact on the whole grain or products made from it, including flour, according to Eustice and the FDA.
However, the irradiation required to kill insects is not strong enough to kill microscopic pathogens like E. coli, according to FDA documents and Russell Stein, the COO of Gray Star Inc., which manufactures irradiation equipment.
“Wheat flour was one of the first approvals by the FDA, many years ago, for the purpose of disinfestation,” Stein said. “In the 1980s the FDA approved all foods to be treated by irradiation to control insects.
“The problem is that the doses required to control bacteria are much higher than that required for insects. The FDA has not approved the irradiation of wheat flour at a dose high enough to control microorganisms such as E. coli.”
Government’s leaving the ball in industry’s court
Even though the agency cites in multiple references in its consumer information, industry guidance and public information online that irradiating food does not add radioactivity to that food, the agency still regulates irradiation as an “additive.”
“FDA regulates sources of radiation used for treating foods as ‘food additives.’ This means that using sources of radiation to treat food requires approval by FDA before the process can be employed commercially,” according to an FDA spokeswoman.
“To seek approval for a source of radiation, an interested party may submit a food additive petition to FDA that contains data demonstrating the safety of the proposed use.
“… there has never been a regulation allowing for the use of ionizing radiation to treat wheat or wheat flour for microbial reduction. If a firm is interested in this use, they can submit a food additive petition to FDA.”
With a definitive “no” from Advent Mills and no comment at all from the North American Millers’ Association on the topic of irradiation of raw flour, and no apparent interest from General Mills in pursuing a kill step, it seems the FDA’s serve will not soon be returned.
Eustice and Stein said that almost guarantees more flour-related pathogen infections in the future. They in light of a research project in Brazil in recent years, the lack of movement toward raw flour irradiation appears to be financially motivated.
The study in Brazil checked the impact of irradiation at varying strengths on raw flour and found no changes at all in the appearance, taste, smell, baking properties, chemical make up of the wheat flour. Leaving the only issue to be the cost of adding an irradiation step to the flour production process.
“If the FDA approves the irradiating of food at higher doses, then it could become a viable kill step for flour,” Stein said.
But first, industry will have to ask for FDA approval.
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