E. coli in More Than Two Dozen States; Many Who Are Sick Ate Cookie Dough
By Kate Barrett
June 19, 2009—The food maker Nestle today voluntarily recalled its refrigerated Toll House cookie dough products and warned consumers not to eat raw Toll House cookie dough as fears about possible E. coli contamination spread to more than two dozen states.
Health officials are not positive Toll House cookie dough is to blame, but Nestle is taking precautionary steps because many of the people sick ate the raw cookie dough. More than 60 people have fallen ill so far in 28 states.
"While the E. coli strain implicated in this investigation has not been detected in our product, the health and safety of our consumers is paramount so we are initiating this voluntary recall," Nestle said in a statement Friday morning.
"Consumers who have purchased these products should not consume them," the Nestle statement said. "Instead, we are asking that consumers return these products to their local grocer for a full refund."
Nestle does advise on its package that people should not eat raw cookie dough.
The company also stressed today that its other products are OK to eat -- including its pre-baked cookies, chocolate chips, cocoa and ice cream made by Dreyer's and Edy's that contain cookie dough.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also released a statement this morning about the cookie dough advising consumers to throw away cookie dough products already in their refrigerators.
"Cooking the dough is not recommended because consumers might get the bacteria on their hands and on other cooking surfaces," the FDA statement said.
A Different Kind of E. coli Case?
Bill Marler, an attorney focused on food poisoning cases with the law firm Marler Clark, said he recently noticed that this season's cases of E. coli did not look like others.
"Summer season is high season for E. coli cases -- normally you'd expect them to be related to hamburger consumption," Marler told ABCNews.com on Friday. "So we started tracking cases in May and June, and not very many of them had hamburger consumption."
Still, cookie dough "was certainly not on the list of things we've asked them," Marler said, adding that he is "surprised" the possible contamination may have occurred in such a "highly processed product."
"We're now going back and getting all the health department records on the people who contacted us over the last three months to see if they match this outbreak," Marler said.
Colorado Health Dept. Says Not to Eat Cookie Dough
Meantime, state health officials around the country are trying to figure out why people have gotten sick.
In Colorado, health officials warned people Thursday to steer clear of Toll House cookie dough due to a possible E. coli infection outbreak.
"We can't be certain that raw cookie dough is the source of these infections, but we are concerned enough that it might be and want consumers to be aware," said Alicia Cronquist, food-borne disease epidemiologist at the Colorado health department, in a Thursday statement.
Of five cases of E. coli infection in Colorado, the four people interviewed so far by the state health department ate raw cookie dough. Two of those people have been hospitalized, according to the Colorado Department of Health.
The spread of E. coli infection across several states indicates the possible contamination may have happened at a manufacturing facility before the product was shipped out to various regions of the country, Marler said.
That's precisely the type of situation that a bill approved by a House committee on Capitol Hill earlier this week aims to prevent. A food safety measure is now headed to the full House for consideration.
The bill being considered would give FDA new authority intended to improve food safety. It would ramp up inspections of food facilities and call for those facilities to pay an annual registration fee that would help the FDA collect money to conduct inspections.
"A series of food-borne disease outbreaks -- in spinach, peanuts, and peppers, to name a few -- has not only sickened and killed American consumers, but has shaken public confidence in the industry that produces one of our most basic and important commodities," House Commerce committee chairman Henry Waxman, D- Calif., said Wednesday. "And it has laid bare unacceptable gaps in our food safety laws."
The measure has support from the Grocery Manufacturers Association as well as other consumer and food industry groups.
For more information or questions about Nestle Toll House raw cookie dough, people can contact the company by calling 1-800-559-5025 or visiting the Web site, www.verybestbaking.com.
ABC News' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.