Pillsbury’s flour recall serves as a devastating reminder that cookie dough is dangerous

Watch out for that uncooked flour.
Watch out for that uncooked flour.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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Two major brands of flour were recalled this month over concerns of contamination by Escherichia coli bacteria, a tiny single-celled creature better known as E. coli.

Pillsbury recalled 4,620 cases of Pillsbury Best 5-pound Bread Flour on June 14. The cases were distributed in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the flour was manufactured by ADM Milling Co. in Buffalo, New York.

Just the day prior, King Arthur Flour recalled 14,218 cases of 5 lb. Unbleached All-Purpose Flour distributed nationwide. It was also manufactured by ADM Milling Co.

As King Arthur Flour itself put it in a press release about the recall, E. coli bacteria can cause a nasty bout of illness, or in more vulnerable populations, kidney damage or death.

E. coli causes a diarrheal illness often with bloody stools. Although most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, some people can develop a form of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). HUS is most likely to occur in young children and the elderly. The condition can lead to serious kidney damage and even death.

The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention took the opportunity to remind people via Twitter to stop eating raw cookie dough, tweeting the warning alongside a delicious-looking photo of raw cookie dough, which is, I don’t know, maybe not the best messaging.

They also advise against allowing children to make “flour crafts” or ornaments using raw dough.

How E. coli gets into flour

E. coli gets into dry goods like flour in a similar way to how salmonella ends up there. The short answer is: poop.

Like salmonella, E. coli is found in animal intestines, and contamination in food often comes from contact with feces. Feces can end up in processed dry-food products through contamination at the processing plant, or in the case of wheat flour, it can be due to the presence of feces in the fields where the grain was grown. If the water used to irrigate a field has animal feces in it, the water can contaminate the food growing in that field, for example.

“Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” Leslie Smoot, a senior advisor at the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Safety, said in an FDA press release cheekily titled, ‘Raw Dough’s a Raw Deal,’ which speaks to the lengths the federal government is willing to go to get us all to lay off the cookie batter.