‘Contamination of wheat poses a foodborne illness risk’

Following up on Chapman’s coverage of the current outbreak of E. coli O26 in flour that has sickened at least 17 people, researchers have concluded that little information is available regarding microbial pathogens in wheat and wheat flour. Information about microbial pathogens in wheat is needed to develop effective methods to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by wheat products.

From 2012 to 2014, we conducted a baseline study to determine the prevalence and levels of pathogens in wheat samples taken before milling. A total of 5,176 wheat samples were tested for enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), Salmonella spp., Listeria spp., and L. monocytogenes. Positive samples were assayed for most probable numbers (MPNs), and isolates were fingerprinted by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). The rate of detection of each pathogen tested was as follows: Salmonella was in 1.23% of the samples (average level of 0.110 MPN/g), EHECs occurred in 0.44% of the samples (0.039 MPN/g), and Listeria spp. occurred in 0.08% of samples (0.020 MPN/g), but L. monocytogenes was not detected.

The PFGE assessment found a high diversity for all organisms. All EHEC PFGE patterns (22 of 22) were unique, and 39 of 47 Salmonella patterns (83%) were unique. These results indicate a diverse background of naturally occurring organisms. These findings suggest that the microbial contamination is coming from diverse sources and provide no evidence in support of a specific pathogen load. Altogether, our surveillance study shows that contamination of wheat with pathogens is clearly evident and poses a foodborne illness risk.

Occurrence and levels of salmonella, enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, and listeria in raw wheat

June 2019

Journal of Food Protection vol. 82 no. 6 pp. 1022-1027

Samuel Myoda, Stefanie Gilbreth, Deann Akins-Leventhal, Seana Davidson, and Mansour Samadpour



Careful with that cookie dough: E. coli O157:H7 can survive in wheat (at least in the lab)

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a human pathogen that can cause bloody diarrhea, hemorrhagic colitis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome. E. coli O157:H7 illnesses are mainly associated with undercooked beef; however, in recent years, outbreaks have been linked to fresh produce, such as spinach, lettuce, and sprouts.

nestle.toll.house.cookie.doughIn 2009, flour was implicated as the contamination source in an outbreak involving consumption of raw cookie dough that resulted in 77 illnesses. The objectives of this research were to determine (i) whether E. coli O157:H7 could be translocated into the internal tissues of wheat (Triticum aestivum) seedlings from contaminated seed, soil, or irrigation water and (ii) whether the bacterium could survive on flowering wheat heads. The levels of contamination of kanamycin-resistant E. coli O157:H7 strains in seed, soil, and irrigation water were 6.88 log CFU/g, 6.60 log CFU/g, and 6.76 log CFU/ml, respectively.

One hundred plants per treatment were sown in pot trays with 50 g of autoclaved soil or purposely contaminated soil, watered every day with 5 ml of water, and harvested 9 days postinoculation. In a fourth experiment, flowering wheat heads were spray inoculated with water containing 4.19 log CFU/ml E. coli O157:H7 and analyzed for survival after 15 days, near the harvest period. To detect low levels of internalization, enrichment procedures were performed and Biotecon real-time PCR detection assays were used to determine the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in the wheat, using a Roche Applied Science LightCycler 2.0 instrument.

The results showed that internalization was possible using contaminated seed, soil, and irrigation water in wheat seedlings, with internalization rates of 2, 5, and 10%, respectively. Even though the rates were low, to our knowledge this is the first study to demonstrate the ability of this strain to reach the phylloplane in wheat. In the head contamination experiment, all samples tested positive, showing the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to survive on the wheat head.


Transmission of Escherichia coli O157:H7 to internal tissues and its survival on flowering heads of wheat


Journal of Food Protection®, Number 3, March 2015, pp. 484-627, pp. 518-524(7)

Martinez, Bismarck; Stratton, Jayne; Bianchini, Andréia; Wegulo, Stephen; Weaver, Glen