A new study suggests that E.coli contamination in raw flour may be much more prevalent than previously thought, citing a significant increase in the number of illnesses linked to the consumption of raw flour products.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on November 23, researchers warn about the risk of raw flour E. coli food poisoning, identifying at least 63 reported illnesses related to the products.
Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collaborated with several state health departments to collect data on clusters of E. coli outbreaks across the United States that involved raw flour products as the source of the contamination from December 21, 2015 to September 5, 2016.
The study identified a total of 63 cases across 24 states during the timeframe, in which seventeen of those cases resulted in patient hospitalization. The majority of cases were found to be STEC 0121, and one was found to be STEC 026 isolates. Of the STEC 0121, the most common type of E. coli outbreak, whole genome sequencing identified 40 isolates to be of very similar isolates that were believed to be linked to the same source.
Researchers linked the outbreak to a General Mills flour recall that impacted more than 10 million pounds of popular Gold Medal and Signature Kitchens flour products.
The outbreak ultimately caused dozens of reported illnesses and hospitalizations. While no one is believed to have died from the E. coli poisoning, at least one incident of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was reported.
E. coli O121 can cause serious and sometimes fatal illnesses, especially among children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. E. coli infections may also cause pregnancy complications for women.
Although most E. coli bacteria cause mild bowel irritation and flu-like symptoms, some forms, including E. coli O121, can be extremely harmful and cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration that can be extremely harmful to those with weakened immune systems. In severe cases, when E. coli O121 is left untreated, it can result in HUS, which can lead to kidney failure for all age ranges infected.
Researchers determined that raw flour products pose a higher risk of carrying bacteria such as E. coli than previously believed. They also identified certain human behaviors that may increase the risk of spreading foodborne pathogens in raw flour, such as eating homemade dough or batter.
Prior CDC warnings have discouraged this behavior due to the risk of salmonella from raw eggs, however, now researchers warn that the behavior could also increase the risk of E. Coli food poisoning as well.