Foodies from around the globe have taken to devouring raw cookie dough and other raw dough products made from flour, however this can lead to E.coli contamination and Salmonella outbreaks. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recently uncovered an E. coli O121 infection from a sample of General Mills flour, affecting more than 38 people belonging to 20 different states of the US between December 21 , 2015, and May 3 , 2016.

General Mills — a US based multinational food company, dealt with the matter responsibly and recalled all of their products comprising of three brands of flour. In response to the multistate E. coli outbreak, the brands were approximately worth 10 million pounds on the market as of May 31, 2016.

Ms. Elizabeth M. Nordlie, President of General Mills Baking Division, whilst taking responsibility for the crisis, said in a press release, “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”.

Though most E.coli infections do not pose serious health concerns, the strain E. coli O121 has the ability to make people sick, according to the FDA.  Predictably, the FDA advised against eating any raw dough-related food product to avoid experiencing adverse health effects such as stomach cramps, fever, vomiting or diarrhea, according to an advisory document released in 2014.

It was also recommended to immediately seek medical attention in case of symptoms such as the bacterial infection being associated with fatal complications. Furthermore, the FDA stipulated that people with weakened immune systems and children are the easiest targets of the infection from this bacterial strain.

The most recent concern regarding the multistate E.coli outbreak was highlighted by the Food Safety News. According to the daily news source, no satisfactory prevention measure has been taken to prevent potentially deadly E. coli infections from reoccurring in future.

It was also brought to attention that two processes — heat treatment and irradiation — are available to kill pathogens present in the flour. However, neither the FDA nor the food industry is following these procedures at the moment. It was contemplated that the FDA and other leading government authorities have remained suspiciously inactive in taking any preventive measures to avoid future cookie dough-related E.coli infections.

Moreover, after a serious outbreak was reported in raw cookie dough-based products in 2009, Nestle Co. has been found as the only company currently treating the flour used for making such products, with heat.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based foodborne illness lawyer and attorney, said that he appreciates the work Nestle has been doing by using heat treatment for purifying the flour, as most people are unaware of the potentially hazardous substances that are present in flour. He further urged all flour manufacturers to step up and develop safe products for consumption.

According to Food Safety News, Marler insisted upon adopting measures to rectify the situation and remarked that if government authorities are incapable of doing anything then the least they could do is to place large warning signs on the products themselves.

However, a spokesperson from General Mills commented against heat-treating the flour by saying that the treatment procedure would negatively affect the ‘rising properties’ of the flour that are used in baking. Hence, General Mills is reluctant to apply this anti-microbial practice.

According to Food Safety News, Brian Strouts, Vice President of Baking and Food Technical Services, American Institute of Baking (AIB), Manhattan, also supported the claim made by the official from General Mills. Strouts stated that heating disrupts the protein structure of the flour and can negatively affect the functional properties of the flour.  He added, “You can use it to make cookies, but it (heat-treated flour) doesn’t work so well for bread and other foods.”

Strout also emphasized on not consuming flour-based products raw without cooking or baking. He exclaimed that baking temperatures are enough to kill potentially harmful pathogens. Moreover, whilst shedding light on the FDA-unapproved procedure of anti-contamination — irradiation  Strout said that there is nothing else that the industry can do to keep these products free of pathogens.

Irradiation is a method of purifying or sterilizing foods using X-rays, gamma rays or electron beams. The FDA has approved irradiation for only limited foods including fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab), oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, poultry, seeds for sprouting, shelled eggs in addition to some spices and seasonings.

However, it was only after evaluating the safety profile of irradiated foods for more than thirty years, that the FDA declared these as fit for human consumption. Furthermore CDC, WHO, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have also endorsed the safety of irradiated foods.

The only form of irradiation that is being allowed by the FDA for flour treatment is for controlling pests. On the other hand, the temperature required for irradiating flour for killing bacteria is very high.

Russell N. Stein, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Gray Star Inc., a US-based private company which manufactures irradiation equipment for the food industry, said, “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.”