FDA Confirms Presence of E. Coli in Nestle Cookie Dough

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By Lyndsey Layton and Greg Gaudio
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it had confirmed the presence of E. coli 0157, a deadly strain of bacteria, in samples of Nestlé Toll House refrigerated cookie dough produced at the company's plant in Danville, Va.

Investigators did not find the bacterium inside the factory or on equipment but in a tub of chocolate cookie dough made at the site in February, said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety at the FDA. The dough had a June 10 expiration date.

Nestlé voluntarily recalled 30,000 cases of its refrigerated cookie dough on June 19 after officials at the FDA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspected that dozens of cases of E. coli-related illness were linked to the product.

Nearly all the victims, most of whom are female and younger than 19, reported eating raw cookie dough in the days before the onset of symptoms.

Health officials still do not know how E. coli 0157, a bacterium that lives in cattle intestines, ended up in a product that seems so unlikely to contain it. The risk usually associated with cookie dough is salmonella, a bacterium that can be found in raw eggs. None of the ingredients in the dough -- eggs, milk, flour, chocolate, butter -- is known to host E. coli 0157.

Federal investigators spent more than a week at the Danville plant and did not detect contamination in the equipment or among workers, Acheson said. "It raises the likelihood that it was an ingredient," he said. "And it really means that industry has to be constantly vigilant, because foods we think of as low risk could be contaminated with a deadly pathogen."

As of last week, CDC reported 69 cases of E. coli 0157 illness linked to cookie dough in 29 states -- including two in Maryland and two in Virginia. The agency said that 34 of the victims have been hospitalized and that nine developed a serious complication known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome. None has died.

William Marler, a food safety lawyer in Seattle who is representing 23 of the victims, said the laboratory results that confirm contamination boost the legal claims. "But it doesn't help you figure out how the E. coli got into the cookie dough," he said.

The portion of the Nestlé plant that makes cookie dough, and employs about 250 people, has been shuttered since June 19 as federal investigators and company officials try to determine the source of the contamination. The other part of the plant, which makes Buitoni pasta, continues to run. A company spokeswoman said it is unclear when the cookie dough factory, which makes all of Nestlé's refrigerated cookie dough, will reopen. "We are very concerned about those who have become ill from E. coli 0157:H7, and deeply regret that this has occurred," the company said in a statement.

At Poogie's Buffet & Grill, about half a mile from the Nestlé plant, the facility's closure was seen as another stroke of bad luck for a rural community hit hard by the sour economy.

"The economy's already messed up," said Jared Sellers, 25, a manager at the restaurant. "It's 8 o'clock on a Saturday [night], and nobody's here."

E. 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, including 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.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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