35 illnesses may now be linked to tainted flour products

Sophia Harris – CBC News

Canada is facing yet another flour recall — this time in B.C. — because of a product that could be contaminated with harmful E. coli bacteria.

It comes on the heels of a separate massive, national flour recall sparked by another E. coli outbreak — one that made some people so sick, they ended up in hospital.

“I’m still upset over what happened, and my two-year-old, he is still recovering,” says Kyla Hermsen from Grand Forks, B.C. Her son became severely ill after eating raw cookie dough made with Robin Hood flour that was part of the national recall.

A new, separate recall involves a batch of Rogers 10-kilogram all-purpose flour possibly contaminated with E.coli and sold at B.C. Costco stores.

The recall was triggered by a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) investigation after five people in B.C. all became infected with the same strain of E.coli.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control tested the Rogers flour purchased by one of the victims who fell ill after eating raw dough. It contained the E.coli strain O121.

Rogers Foods says a direct link to its flour product has not yet been proven and that it’s working with the CFIA on investigating the situation.

The company stresses that people can protect themselves by not eating raw flour or dough — the cooking process helps kill any lingering pathogens.

“We must emphasize that flour is a raw agricultural product and must be thoroughly baked or cooked before eating,” Rogers Foods said in a letterto customers.

‘Lucky to be alive’

The CFIA says the Rogers recall has no connection to the recent E. coli outbreak involving numerous products linked to a flour mill in Saskatoon. The mill is owned by Ardent Mills, which makes its own products and supplies other companies such as Smucker Foods.

That outbreak led to an extensive national recall, which included everything from several Smucker’s Robin Hood flour items to pie shells and pizza dough balls.

After six months and 30 cases of reported illnesses across the country, the Public Health Agency of Canada has declared that outbreak over and closed the investigation.

But its effects still linger. Hermsen says her son, Brian, became so sick after eating raw dough that his kidneys shut down. He had to have a blood transfusion, spent four weeks in the hospital, and is still recovering from his illness.

“I didn’t know if he was going to live or die. He’s lucky to be alive right now,” she says.

The source of the outbreak also remains a mystery. The investigation focused on 11 loads of Canadian wheat that were shipped to Ardent Mills. But the CIFA believes the wheat was contaminated in the field.

“We don’t know which farm, we don’t know what the harvest state was, so it’s really hard to definitively pinpoint the source,” said Ken Marcynuk, the CFIA’s national manager of food safety investigations and recalls.

Where does it come from?

Last year, the U.S. was hit with a large-scale E. coli flour outbreak in which 63 people became ill.

The culprit in these cases may be the manure that’s used as fertilizer, says Rick Holley, a food sciences professor at the University of Manitoba.

The manure can contain harmful bacteria that, if not treated properly, can survive and infect a wheat crop, says Holley.

“Composting must be done more efficiently and effectively to eliminate the possibility that organisms can be transferred to the plants,” he says. “If we can’t do that, we’re going to continue to face problems.”

CFIA’s Marcynuk says that’s one possibility, but adds that many wheat farms use artificial fertilizer that doesn’t contain manure.

He says that the wheat could also become contaminated because of animal feces containing pathogens that then get into the water supply. Or, wild animals wandering in the field could directly contaminate the wheat with their feces.

“You’ll never eliminate the risk in a raw agricultural product,” says Marcynuk. However, the CFIA is currently investigating both E. coli flour outbreaks to see if it can find a way to mitigate future risks.

“Perhaps there are some things that we can do. So we are working with industry,” he says.

To safeguard themselves, Marcynuk says people should never eat raw flour — or even let their children use playdough made with flour.

Holley agrees and says people must let go of that ritual of licking cake batter remains or eating cookie dough from the bottom of the mixing bowl.

“The recognition that these products can be hazardous to your health I think is becoming more and more apparent, and we as consumers have to recognize that.”