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Just When Did E. Coli Start Showing Up in Flour?

When it comes to food-borne disease, E. coli, along with Listeria and Salmonella, is a fairly common culprit. Most often encountered in undercooked meats, the bacterium can cause a number of medical conditions, ranging from annoying to rather serious. But after a recall involving the bacteria found in flour, a number of health officials are asking a salient question: just how did this bacteria end up in flour?

This story begins May 31, when General Mills recalled flour due to potential contamination with E. coli. The company expanded the recall three times, on July 1, July 11 and July 25. In total, General Mills recalled about 45 million-lbs. of the product, representing about 2% of its annual output.

Now that the recall itself is largely in the rearview, scientists and regulators are struggling to understand how E. coli ended up in the flour in the first place. And while they are trying to determine that, they are starting to wonder how serious this development is and what can be done to prevent it from happening again in the future. According to Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts:

“Pathogens, or bad bacteria, evolve. They can become more virulent or they can show up in products we didn’t expect, and that’s what’s happened with flour.”

Both the CDC and the FDA are working to pinpoint how the bacteria could enter the Kansas City plant. Most of the officials theorize that contaminated groundwater or animal waste in a wheat field contributed to the outbreak, but for a commodity that typically exhibits a low risk for foodborne illness, it’s leaving many experts stumped. What’s not in question, though, is the source. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

At least three of the 46 people known to have gotten sick from General Mills’ flour still had the original flour sack packaging that allowed the FDA and CDC to test and verify the exact source of the E. coli. “This was the smoking gun. They actually isolated it from a patient’s flour bag,” said Mike Doyle, a food safety expert at the University of Georgia. “That more definitive connection has not been made before.”

The answer to this question will not be supplied for some time, as both the FDA and CDC are still investigating the outbreak. Currently, flour samples from the Kansas City plant are testing negatively for E. coli. And the FDA still has not released evidence that pinpoints exactly where the E. coli originated. So for now, the question of how E. coli entered General Mills’ supply chain will remain a mystery.