Flour Recall Demonstrates Need for Robust Surveillance of Known and Emerging Pathogens

Flour Recall Demonstrates Need for Robust Surveillance of Known and Emerging Pathogens
Flour© Getty Images

Pathogens can taint even staple ingredients, as evidenced by a recent recall of 10 million pounds of flour for possible E. coli contamination.

This analysis was updated on June 16, 2016 to correct the pathogen strain.

On May 31, General Mills announced a recall of several varieties of flour, totaling 10 million pounds, for possible E. coli contamination. As of June 1, 38 people have taken ill across 20 states; 10 have been hospitalized.

All food products—including staple ingredients such as flour—are susceptible to contamination.  A few familiar and particularly virulent pathogens, like Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O157, often attract notice for sprawling outbreaks of foodborne illness. But the problem can prove even more complex.

In our interconnected food system, new risks emerge while well-known bacteria evolve—developing mechanisms that make them more harmful to humans or appearing in an unexpected food vehicle, such as flour, to spread infection. Public health officials had previously encountered the culprit in the ongoing flour outbreak: STEC O121, for instance, was implicated in a six-state outbreak tied to alfalfa sprouts in 2014. Still, the General Mills recall demonstrates that STEC O121 is a pathogen to watch closely in all foods and highlights the need for constant vigilance as officials identify and monitor potential bacterial threats moving forward.

The American food safety system must be able to adapt and respond quickly in the face of new and evolving foodborne hazards. In an upcoming report, Pew’s safe food project will detail ways to address emerging pathogens in U.S. meat and poultry, but the same principles apply across the food supply. Diligent surveillance is critical to identifying and tracking known contaminants. At the same time, regulators must adopt new tools and technologies that pinpoint unfamiliar, harmful bacteria. 

America’s Overdose Crisis
America’s Overdose Crisis

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Quick View

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Groceries
Groceries
Article

Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Costly and preventable

Quick View
Article

Each year, foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens sicken an estimated 48 million Americans and cause between $15 billion to more than $70 billion in health-related costs. These illnesses can be significantly reduced if producers and regulators adopt prevention-based strategies to decrease the risk of contamination that can make people sick. Pew’s research and policy recommendations inform researchers, the food industry, federal food safety regulators, and the lawmakers who provide oversight and funding for food safety programs. This collection explores lessons learned from recent outbreaks, and steps that producers and federal authorities have taken—or could take—to prevent future ones.