Nestlé Recall Leaves A Mystery in Its Wake
of Article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/20/AR2009062001835.html
Probe E. Coli Link to Cookie Dough
By Lyndsey Layton and Valerie Strauss
Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 21, 2009
microbiologists and food safety investigators have descended on the
Danville, Va., plant that makes Nestlé's refrigerated cookie dough, trying
to crack a scientific mystery surrounding a national outbreak of illness
from E. coli 0157, a deadly strain of bacteria, which has been
linked to the product.
officials and food producers puzzled yesterday over how E. coli
0157, a bacterium that lives in the intestines of cattle, could have ended
up in a product that seems so unlikely to contain it. "It's a
fascinating outbreak," said Craig Hedberg, an expert on food-borne
diseases at the University of Minnesota. "By just looking at package
labeling, there is no reason you would expect an event like this to
outbreak, which has sickened at least 65 people in 29 states, is the latest
worry for consumers in the Washington area and across the country unnerved
by a wave of food-borne illnesses, including botulism associated with
canned chili and infections from salmonella linked to peanut products. With
cookie dough, like peanut butter, being a favorite of children, the latest
outbreak is particularly alarming because the young and the elderly are
more likely to develop severe complications if infected with E. coli
0157. More than two-thirds of the 65 victims are younger than 19, according
to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None has died.
of the victims live in Maryland, and two live in Virginia, the CDC
reported. Their identities have not been revealed.
supermarkets yesterday, Nestlé products had been pulled from the
refrigerated section, and consumers were left to ponder the safety of the
U.S. food system.
I heard about the recall, I thought, 'Is nothing safe anymore?' " said
Carole Feld, a D.C. resident who has a 13-year-old child, pushing a
shopping cart through a Glover Park Whole Foods Market yesterday. "If
bacteria has gotten into Nestlé's Toll House cookie dough, then everything
Evans, who was shopping in a Safeway in McLean with stepdaughter Kelly
Ready, said that when he heard about the recall, he immediately checked to
see whether there was any of the suspect cookie dough -- which Kelly, 14,
said she sometimes eats raw -- in his home. There wasn't.
think [the food supply] is basically safe," Evans said. "But we
need tighter controls, though I'm not a believer in big government."
outbreak comes as the federal government is attempting to revamp the
nation's outdated food safety system. President Obama has identified food
safety as a priority, and Congress is moving legislation that would place
new requirements on food manufacturers while beefing up the Food and Drug
Administration's inspection and enforcement powers. A key House committee
passed legislation last week that could be voted on as early as this week,
and a companion bill is pending in the Senate.
has a solid reputation within the food industry for manufacturing practices
designed to prevent contamination. The company has cooperated fully with
the investigation, said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food
safety at the FDA.
recalled all its refrigerated Toll House cookie dough products, or about
300,000 cases, on Friday, within 24 hours of being notified by the FDA that
it suspected a problem, said Laurie MacDonald, a vice president at Nestlé
company also suspended operations at the Danville plant that day, she said.
About 500 people work at the plant, which is a major employer in the small
community near the North Carolina border.
which has a 41 percent share of the prepared cookie dough market, has not
estimated the cost of the recall, MacDonald said.
have not confirmed the presence of E. coli 0157 in any Nestlé
product; they are testing samples of dough collected from the plant as well
as from victims. But William E. Keene, chief epidemiologist for the state
of Oregon, said he was "100 percent" certain that the culprit was
the cookie dough. "Virtually everyone [who got sick] ate the same
brand of cookie dough," he said. "I have absolute confidence in
the appearance of E. coli 0157 in cookie dough is so unusual,
investigators are looking at a broad range of possible factors, analyzing
the ingredients, the plant's equipment and interior, the health of workers
and whether the facility is located near cattle. Federal officials are also
considering whether the dough might have been intentionally contaminated.
health officials first noticed cases of E. coli 0157 emerging in March.
Initially, they suspected ground beef or strawberries. But after
interviewing victims, state officials and the CDC compared notes during a
conference call Tuesday and settled on the refrigerated cookie dough as the
risk usually associated with cookie dough is salmonella, a bacteria that
can be found in raw eggs contained in the dough. Nestlé's cookie dough is
packaged with labels warning consumers not to eat it raw. But people tend
to disregard the warning -- 39 percent of consumers eat raw cookie dough,
according to Consumer Reports. It has become such a popular snack that many
ice cream makers have developed a cookie dough flavor.
Marler, a prominent food safety lawyer in Seattle who is representing six
of the E. coli 0157 victims, said Nestlé's warning label is not a
defense. "It doesn't absolve them of liability," he said.
coli refers to
many kinds of bacteria, most of which are harmless or even beneficial. But
certain types, including E. coli 0157, produce a toxin that can cause
severe illness and even death in humans. The E. coli 0157 bacterium lives
in the intestines of cows and other animals -- goats, sheep, deer and elk
-- and is found most often in ground beef. But over the past decade, a
number of E. coli 0157 illness outbreaks have been associated with green,
leafy produce, such as spinach.
diseases are generally a moving target," Hedberg said. "We can't
get too comfortable thinking we know how these organisms behave."