SAVANNAH, GA. — Two issues show why the food industry remains vulnerable to E. coli outbreaks, according to a presentation given Oct. 25 by Scott Hood, Ph.D., director, global food safety and regulatory affairs for General Mills, Inc., at the AACC International annual meeting in Savannah.
For one issue, industry should assume some consumers will keep failing to follow directions. They will keep eating raw dough, such as cookie dough, that is supposed to be cooked, he said. For a second issue, detections systems keep improving, meaning fewer food safety problems will go undetected.
Minneapolis-based General Mills dealt with E. coli problems recently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, this year reported 63 clinical cases of people becoming ill from the same strain of E. coli linked to flour from General Mills. Seventeen of those cases led to hospitalization.
“This is really a big deal and a serious situation,” Dr. Hood said.
The vast majority of flour in the world will be cooked at some point, which takes care of E. coli, he said. Flour linked to this year’s outbreaks, however, was not cooked.
“Really the prevention is at the level of the consumer use, not so much at the production facility,” Dr. Hood said. “That doesn’t mean that General Mills doesn’t take responsibility here. It was our product, and we tried to do the right thing here, but now we have to think about what other interventions can occur in the future. So how can we think about incoming grain, how can we think about practices within a mill that can provide some level of prevention?”
While dough, such as cookie dough, may be sold at retail with instructions that it should be cooked, people continue to taste the dough without cooking it, and that practice goes for adults as well as children, he said. The food industry has to figure out how to respond to that practice, Dr. Hood said. Heat-treated flour and irradiation might be options although consumers may have a poor perception of irradiation, he said. Industry also might consider what to do with grains prior to them being milled into flour.
“There’s going to be a lot of ongoing work done within General Mills, and we certainly want to work with the industry, with the regulatory agencies and understand what might be going on,” he said.
He added, “We don’t have all the answers right now. I know that folks within F.D.A. are thinking about those same things as well.”
Dr. Hood also said he expects whole genome sequencing will detect more food safety outbreaks. This system is more powerful than the PulseNet system, he said.
“The surveillance systems continue to improve,” he said. “So to think that these problems didn’t exist before and maybe it’s just bad luck for a few companies, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. When I say it gets worse, I mean there are going to be more of these types of events.”He added, “It’s up to industry. It’s up to companies like General Mills and others to find out what we can do to prevent these issues before they do occur because if they do occur, the likelihood of finding them is getting higher and higher every day.”