Whenever a well known product, such as Gold Medal flour, is recalled for possible pathogenic bacteria contamination and is associated with an outbreak, we receive many emails and messages from worried people. While it’s true that bacteria are everywhere, discovering that a product you use may contain bacteria that could make you and your family seriously ill is upsetting.
Controls are supposed to be in place to make our food supply as safe as it could be, but it is impossible to ensure that every bite we eat is completely safe. Most corporations do follow the law and market safe foods, but there are some that run a sloppy operation and even some company owners who have been negligent about the safety of their products, such as the owners of the Peanut Corporation of America.
So far, no E. coli bacteria have been found at the General Mills facility or at their flour mill. No E. coli bacteria have been found in the product. The recall was triggered by epidemiological evidence: people who have been sickened by this particular strain of E. coli O121 used flour, some used Gold Medal flour, and some ate foods containing raw flour before they got sick. Thirty-eight people in 20 states are sick with the outbreak strain of E. coli, including three in Minnesota.
So how worried should you be about this outbreak and recall? The answer is: not very. Of course, make sure you don’t have the recalled product in your home; if you do, get rid of it.
But this is a good opportunity to remind people that flour is a raw agricultural product, and can be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. The wheat can be contaminated in the field, during harvesting, transport, or processing. And one batch of wheat with bacteria can contaminate thousands or millions of pounds of product.
No one should eat any raw products made with flour; most people don’t know this. Flour doesn’t seem like something that could contain bacteria, but it can. Never eat raw cookie dough, and don’t lick the batters when you are making cake batter.
And when working in the kitchen, do your best to avoid cross-contamination between raw flour (and raw eggs, and raw meats and poultry) and other ingredients and utensils. Wash your hands, work surfaces, and utensils thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw dough or batter products or raw flour. And always be careful with flour. It can get everywhere, float in the air, and land on any surface when you’re working with it in the kitchen. But don’t panic.
And remember that 10,000,000 pounds of flour have been recalled, but there are only 38 people who are sick. These illnesses happened over a four month period, from December 21, 205 to May 3, 2016. Even using the multiplier of 2, which is standard in E. coli outbreaks, 76 people are sick out of the millions who use Gold Medal flour every day.
There is a caveat to this advice. If you have anyone in your family, or if anyone that you cook or bake for, has a chronic illness or a compromised immune system, you should be extra vigilant about food safety. Young children, the elderly, and pregnant women are also more vulnerable to the serious consequences of food poisoning. Make sure that you clean your kitchen well after using raw ingredients such as flour, and cook foods to a safe internal temperature, checked with a food thermometer, before you feed anyone in these groups.
The symptoms of an E. coli infection include severe stomach and abdominal cramps, nausea, mild fever, and diarrhea that may be bloody or watery. If you are experiencing these symptoms, please see your doctor. If an E. coli infection is improperly treated with antibiotics, a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome can occur. HUS can cause kidney failure and death. This complication is more likely in children under the age of five, another reason why small children should never eat raw cookie dough or any product containing raw flour.
We also get questions about class action lawsuits. If you have a question about this matter, please contact an attorney.