Cookie dough contamination just the latest food poisoning

BY ZHANRAN ZHAO | JUNE 23, 2009 7:21 AM

Despite health warnings, 39 percent of people in the United States eat raw cookie dough, according to Consumer Reports. And even with a recent recall of Nestlé Toll House products because of E. coli contamination, some UI students aren’t concerned about food poisoning.

“I eat a lot of fast food and frozen pizzas, but I’m not normally worried,” said UI senior Sean Hayes, who has suffered food poisoning in the past.

Grocers across the nation took Toll House cookie dough off their shelves June 19 when Nestlé recalled 300,000 packages. Hy-Vee stores in Iowa City, which carry the product, have recalled the dough, said Chris Friesleben, the director of communications for the company.

The outbreak of food poisoning has so far sickened 66 people nationwide, including two in Iowa. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported.

A strain of the bacteria E. coli is responsible for the infections, said Patricia Quinlisk, the medical director at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

E. coli is a common cause of food-poisoning cases in the United States. And waves of food poisonings hit the state about once every two months. The bacteria can spread to fresh produce, such as tomatoes in last summer’s outbreak, as well as packaged foods, Quinlisk said.

A June 12 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies food poisoning as a national health problem. In 2006, the latest year in which data were collected, the United States had 1,270 outbreaks, leading to 27,634 cases and 11 deaths.

One reason food-poisoning cases surface so often is that all steps of food preparation, from manufacturing to shipping to cooking in the home, have to be handled correctly.

If one step goes wrong, the others don’t make up for it, Quinlisk said.

Officials have begun investigations at the Danville, Va., plant where the cookie dough is manufactured. The particular strain of E. coli is usually found in the stomachs of cows.

Occasionally, outbreaks involve particularly nasty strains of bacteria — such as the one contaminating Nestlé cookie dough.

They can cause severe illnesses that may be difficult to treat with antibiotics because the digestive system already contains beneficial types of bacteria, Quinlisk said.

Fortunately, most food-poisoning cases are not deadly, and common symptoms, including diarrhea and stomach pain, usually subside in a few days.

The Food and Drug Administration has urged consumers to throw away the products and refrain from eating or cooking the dough. The agency also cautions against eating raw foods in general.

Produce used in salads, such as spinach and tomatoes, has been recalled in recent years.

No date had been set for restocking the products in local stores, Friesleben said, but her concern about the safety of the customers outweighs the potential financial effect of the recall.

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