Beware of the plume: Flour linked E. coli O26 outbreak, Aldi brands recalled

I used to be a lick-the-batter-off-the-spoon kind of guy. I stopped doing that a few years ago. I don’t eat raw cookie dough, or let my kids eat it. I’m probably not the most fun dad, but outbreaks like what is going on right now is why.

Courtesy of the Safe Plates Information Center and NC State Extension

According to CDC,

As of May 24, 2019, 17 people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26 have been reported from 8 states. A list of the states and the number of cases in each can be found on the Map of Reported Cases page.

Illnesses started on dates ranging from December 11, 2018 to April 18, 2019. Ill people range in age from 7 to 86 years, with a median age of 23. Sixty-five percent of ill people are female. Of 17 people with information available, 3 have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence indicates that flour is a likely source of this outbreak.

In interviews, ill people answered questions about the foods they ate and other exposures in the week before they became ill. Of seven people who were interviewed, four (57%) reported eating, licking, or tasting raw, homemade dough or batter. Two people with detailed information reported eating raw dough or batter made with flour or baking mixes from ALDI.

Investigators with the Rhode Island Department of Health collected records and flour samples at a bakery where an ill person reported eating raw dough. Records indicated that the bakery used Baker’s Corner All Purpose Flour from ALDI. The outbreak strain was isolated from an unopened bag of Baker’s Corner All Purpose Flour collected at the bakery.

WGS results showed that the E. coli O26 strain identified in the Baker’s Corner All Purpose Flour sample was closely related genetically to the E. coli O26 strain identified in ill people. These results provide additional evidence that people in this outbreak got sick from eating flour.

On May 23, 2019, ADM Milling Co. and Aldi recalled pdf icon[PDF – 142 KB]external icon 5 lb. bags of Baker’s Corner All Purpose Flour sold at retail locations in the following states because they may be contaminated with E. coli: Connecticut, Delaware, Massachussetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia

I talked to Korin Miller at whattoexpect.com about this outbreak too, and the hidden risk factor in all of this might be cross-contamination.

It’s a good idea to take care when handling raw flour the same way as you would if you were preparing raw meat. That means washing your hands well after you touch it, sanitizing your countertops after you use it and not eating flour products until they’re thoroughly cooked, Chapman says.

Overall, you should definitely take this seriously. “It’s really, really risky to eat raw flour products,” Chapman says.

And I think about this every time I squeeze and plop down a bag of flour in my kitchen. The pathogens, if they are in there, get spread around like shrapnel.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.