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Posted on Jul 19, 2016 in Blog

Flour Recall: What You Need to Know

Thank you to a faithful reader, GS, for asking the question that led to this very informative interview. If you receive product from a distributor you may well have been contacted about this flour and its recall due to possible contamination with E. coli. Well, didn’t that catch us off guard!

Valerie Gamble, MS, RS (Outreach and Delegation Coordinator, Food and Feed Safety Division: valerie.gamble@state.mn.us) was kind enough to take time to answer my litany of questions. I hope you find them helpful; I sure did.

The Recall:

How did Gold Medal come to learn there was contamination in the flour?

As summarized on the FDA website for this recall, when conducting interviews, the CDC found that several ill individuals had eaten or handled raw dough prior to getting sick. The FDA conducted a traceback investigation that pointed to flour produced by General Mills facility in Kansas City, Missouri. Because of the epidemiology, laboratory data and traceback evidence available at the time, General Mills decided to conduct a voluntary recall of Gold Medal, Signature Brands, and Gold Medal Wondra flours on May 31, 2016. This recall was expanded on July 1, 2016, based on additional laboratory genetic testing. [Read the recall announcement here]

Did anyone get sick? Extent of illnesses/outcomes?

Yes, the current case count is 42 individuals in 21 states (including 3 in Minnesota), and 11 people have required hospitalization. [Read more from the CDC here]

How does E. coli get into flour?

Flour comes from wheat, which could come into contact with bird and animal feces in the field, or potentially could be contaminated during transport, storage, or processing. [Check out info from the FDA here]

Are there other contaminants of concern?

Wheat could potentially come into contact with other types of bacteria in the natural environment; there was an outbreak of salmonella associated with flour in 2008 and an E. coli O157H7 outbreak associated with flour in 2009. [Links to articles here andhere, respectively]. There is also a mycotoxin that may be produced in wheat kernels that can cause illness in humans. Companies can screen incoming wheat shipments for the presence of this mycotoxin, however. [Fact sheet about toxins in wheats here]

Were they able to recover all of the product?

That would be a question for the FDA. The instruction given in this case was to not use and throw out any product found to be part of the recall. [FDA outbreak article here]

How long can these organisms survive in flour? 

Unknown – it is thought that the bacteria can be present in a ‘dormant’ state in the wheat, based on studies of extended survival of some bacteria in low moisture food products. [Information about salmonella survival here]

Can these organisms show up in non-wheat flours (corn, rice, oat)? Bacterial contamination can happen at the initial site of production (contamination in the fields), during transport, storage, or processing for any raw agricultural product. I am not familiar enough with the production processes for other flours to know whether they go through a heat treatment before finishing. [Cookie dough article here]

General practices:

What is the recommended cooking temperature for raw flour? 

It is recommended by the FDA and the CDC that people follow directions in recipes that contain raw flour- there isn’t a specific temperature that has been set at this point. The main point of instruction from both agencies is that raw dough should never be consumed. [Article about shiga toxin-producing in flour productshere]

Is proofing dough at room temperature or in a proofer (90-100°) risky?

Proofed dough is intended to be cooked thoroughly before consumption according to a recipe or cooking instructions. Anyone handling proofed dough should follow food code requirements for handling raw product and wash hands, use clean, sanitized utensils, and clean and sanitize all surfaces to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Is it safe to use flour as a dusting on baked items? 

Unknown – that is a good question for the FDA. The recommendations cover raw dough products and address flour as a raw product: FDA article here, CDC article about shiga toxin-producing in flour products here

How important is it to keep the cut table in a pizza restaurant flour free? 

The restaurant should follow food code requirements for raw and ready to eat food. If this is a surface that only comes into contact with ready to eat food, it should not have any raw ingredients on it at any time. If a raw ingredient, including raw flour, came into contact with the table it should be washed and sanitized before a ready to eat food touched the surface directly.

Does it happen very often that people get foodborne illness from flour? 

Unknown – as with many foodborne illnesses the exact number of cases is hard to quantify. That would be a good question for the FDA or the CDC.

Anything else we should know? 

The specific bacteria in this outbreak is STEC O121, and there isn’t a lot of information that has been released to the public. I would guess that more information will be released through the CDC and the FDA over the coming months, so both websites would be good to check periodically:

E coli O121 Outbreak Investigation – CDC

E coli O121 Outbreak Investigation – FDA

Thanks for the in-depth explanation and resources, Valerie!