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Nestle cookie dough is linked to E. coli and recalled

By By Gardiner Harris

New York Times News Service

June 19, 2009

Nestle USA recalled its Toll House refrigerated cookie dough on Friday after health officials linked the dough to infections from the bacteria E. coli in as many as 66 people in 28 states.

The recall, by a company with a reputation for strong quality-control measures, once again demonstrates the difficulty of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply. The increasingly disparate nature of contaminated foods — recently including pistachios, peanut butter and chicken pot pies — has complicated the task of illness hunters and food inspectors because no one is sure anymore which foods may be risky.

“You can’t assume it’s the usual ground beef or fresh produce,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration.

E. coli O157, the strain linked to the Nestle dough, is a particularly dangerous pathogen normally found in contaminated meat. It causes abdominal cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Most adults recover within a week, but the disease can lead to serious kidney damage and death.

“We’re all having trouble figuring out how E. coli O157 gets in cookie dough,” said Dr. Timothy F. Jones, Tennessee’s state epidemiologist. “This wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen.”

Officials have been hunting since March for the cause of cases from across the country that shared the same genetic fingerprint. Because most victims were young and female, the investigation was unusual from the start. Twenty-five people have been hospitalized, including seven who suffered a severe complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome. No one has died.

Among the early food suspects were strawberries and fruit smoothies, but neither quite fit. On Wednesday, health investigators in Washington state proposed a link with Nestle’s cookie dough, prompting officials in the rest of the country to re-interview victims. All six in Minnesota confirmed eating dough, said Carlota Medus, an epidemiologist in the state health department.

On Friday, the FDA advised consumers to dispose of any Nestle refrigerated cookie dough they may have. Although cooking may kill the bacteria, handling the raw dough could spread the contaminant to hands and cooking surfaces.

Nestle is telling consumers to return cookie and brownie dough products to grocers for a full refund.

“We made the decision to proactively withdraw the product,” said Laurie MacDonald, a company spokeswoman, who noted that even in normal circumstances, cookie dough should never be eaten uncooked. She pointed to the product’s label, which states, “Bake before consuming.”

Bill Marler, a food-safety lawyer, scoffed at that statement.

“Those three words do not constitute an adequate warning, and Nestle should not be blaming their victims for doing what everyone in America does, and that is to eat and handle cookie dough before it’s cooked,” Marler said.

No other Nestle Toll House products are affected, including already baked Toll House cookies, Toll House morsels, chocolate baking bars, cocoa or Dreyer’s and Edy’s ice cream with cookie dough ingredients.

Legislators and advocates said the recall should be a spur to action in Congress on legislation to overhaul the food-safety system.

“This most recent E. coli outbreak serves as a reminder that Congress must pass the strongest food safety legislation possible to protect our food supply,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Sarah Klein, a staff lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, added: “If there was ever any doubt that we’ve reached a crisis, this should provide the proof.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan measure on Wednesday that would give the food and drug agency more money and authority to inspect food facilities and to force contaminated ingredients off the market. Food manufacturers would have to write and carry out safety plans, paying an annual registration fee to help finance enforcement.

The House is expected to take up the measure this summer. Members of the Senate Health Committee have promised to take up companion legislation after a food-safety panel appointed by President Barack Obama issues a report.

While legislation may improve food safety, the Nestle case shows that food scares will continue, public health officials said. Nestle is already known for its insistence on adhering to the kind of strict safety measures mandated in the proposed legislation. For example, Nestle refused to buy from Peanut Corp. of America, the source of a peanut butter scare last year, after it failed two Nestle audits. Many other large food buyers were not so thorough.

“It doesn’t matter how much money or how many laws you put in place, the system will always have contamination problems,” said Acheson of the FDA.

The agency is continuing to investigate the source of the contamination. “Was it a contaminated ingredient, and if so what?” Acheson asked. “Or was it a problem that occurred inside the facility during processing?”

Whatever the answer, the list of questions that health officials must ask those who suffer food poisoning continues to grow, with pistachios, peanut butter and now cookie dough recently added.

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