The news about the General Mills flour E. coli O121 outbreak and the massive recall of their products has tapered off recently, with the exception of information that the FDA found E. coli O121 bacteria in an open bag of General Mills flour in the home of a patient sickened in this outbreak. The case count still stands at 38 sickened in 20 states, and the recall has not been updated.
The news that bacteria that is “closely genetically related” to the outbreak strain of E. coli O121 that has made people sick is big news. That is an epidemiological link from the product to those who were sickened.
But how many people have really gotten rid of the flour that was part of the recall? How many people decant their flour into another container and no longer have the bag with identifying information? And how many people haven’t heard of the recall and outbreak?
This brings up an interesting question. If flour is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, can you still use it? The answer is yes, you can, but you are taking a risk, especially if anyone in your home is very young, elderly, pregnant, or has a chronic illness. No one can re-sell any product that has been recalled for pathogenic bacterial contamination, so if you see offers of flour on Craigslist or eBay, bring it to the attention of the managers of those sites. Restaurants can’t use the flour, and grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell it. But there is no way to stop consumers from using the flour.
If you are baking or cooking with the flour and it will be cooked to at least 160°F, the foods you make with the flour will be safe. The problem lies in potential cross-contamination.
It only takes 10 E. coli bacteria to make you very sick. A clump of bacteria that size is small enough to float on a speck of flour with lots of room left over. Scooping your measuring cups into the flour, adding it to the bowl, and stirring and beating will spread flour around your kitchen, in minuscule amounts. But a minuscule amount is all it will take to cause a serious illness. The flour can float in the air, you can breathe it in, and it can settle on countertops, cupboard handles, the floor, sink handles, and food. It’s just so easy for bacteria to travel around your kitchen, and you have no way of knowing if there are pathogenic bacteria in those specks of flour.
So the answer is, yes, you can still cook and bake with potentially contaminated flour. But why take the risk? Flour is an inexpensive product and easily replaced. And the physical, monetary, and emotional cost of a serious illness can be incalculable. It’s best to just get rid of the flour, even if you aren’t sure if you bought a package that was recalled.
The symptoms of an E. coli infection include mild fever, serious and painful abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea that may be bloody or watery. This illness can lead to a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) that can cause kidney failure, strokes, and death. If you or anyone you know is experiencing these symptoms, they should see a doctor immediately.