Around the world, wheat is one of the most important crops to many human civilizations. It can also be vital to animals and insects who seize the opportunity to dine on wheat, whether growing in fields or temporarily stored outside after harvest.
But as a recent article explains, wheat is one staple crop that is often overlooked in terms of having food safety issues — especially after it’s processed into flour. However, as another new case of contaminated flour resulting in product recalls makes headlines, the problems involving this crop continue to gain more attention from consumers and food safety experts alike.
To understand why this is, you first have to understand the process of how wheat is turned into flour. When wheat is first taken to a mill, it is cleaned and sifted so unwanted objects, such as stones, pieces of metal, and kernels with color differences are no longer present. The cleaning process, however, is not designed to remove or kill foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, which can contaminate wheat anytime during the growing, harvesting or storage phases.
“Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria. So if an animal heeds the call of nature in the field, bacteria from the animal waste could contaminate the grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour,” Leslie Smoot, a senior advisor in FDA’s Office of Food Safety, said in the article.
Although food safety standards are set for keeping equipment and trucks clean, training employees, abiding by good manufacturing practices, and conducting an analysis of possible contamination points in the process, microbial pathogens are not addressed in the process of milling wheat into flour.
Pathogens can enter the flour supply because there is no “kill step,” such as excessive heat, that would be capable of killing bacteria during the process of producing flour. In addition, the very process of milling wheat into flour can spread contamination from a few infected wheat kernels to large quantities of flour.
Now, as long as the items you make with flour are fully cooked before consumption, the chances of contracting a foodborne illness is very low. However, if that flour is consumed raw, such as in cookie or bread dough, pathogens can be introduced to the body.
This exact problem was highlighted recently in a massive flour recall that was issued after several people in various states became infected with E. coli after eating raw flour that was used to make cookie dough, which was then consumed uncooked.
In all, the recall involved 45 million tons of flour and included a number of secondary recalls from other companies that used the contaminated product to produce their foods — including everything from bread and pancake mixes to meat and poultry products.
And this was not the first time an incident involving E. coli and flour took place. In 2009, a recall was issued after raw packaged cookie dough was linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 77 people, including 10 who developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a life-threatening kidney condition.
After the recall, the company involved began to heat treat flour for its refrigerated cookie dough to avoid future risks.
“That’s the only way you can get rid of the microbes in a wheat flour,” Sunil Maheshwari, vice president of Siemer Specialty Ingredients, said in an article. He also said that heat-treated flour is what makes cookie dough found in ice cream or candy safe to eat.
But, contaminated cookie dough in ice cream grabbed the attention of consumers earlier this week when a recall was issued for two flavors of cookie dough ice cream, this time due to concerns of Listeria contamination. The ice cream company said the contaminated cookie dough came from a third-party supplier. However, the cookie dough supplier said this is untrue as their own tests for pathogens did not found any Listeria present in their facility.
While the investigation still continues, another company is trying to find a better solution to avoid issue of contaminated flour in the future and has developed a special flour called “Safeguard.” This flour has been treated using a “proprietary, all-natural process” to kill any bacteria present. However, industry officials say this option wouldn’t be acceptable to consumers, despite the effectiveness of the procedure.
In the meantime, other companies have decided to put warning statements on the packages of their food that contain flour as an ingredient. This is to help remind consumers to not to eat their product raw and to always wash their hands with soap and water after handling raw flour, dough or batter.
Stephanie Lopez of Food Safety Services at AIB International in the Americas said there are no requirements for products to be labeled with warning statements for not-ready-to eat (NRTE) foods. However, food manufacturers are required to communicate to their customers and consumers any safe handling requirements, such as refrigeration and cooking instructions.
“It’s more about telling the consumer what to do, rather than what not to do,” Lopez said in the article.
However, Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor at Cornell University, warns that companies cannot rely on the consumer to play it safe. Instead, he said they must understand what the consumer can do and will do with their products.
He said he’s seen companies make food safe to eat, but in some cases, it just doesn’t taste good. And while you can make flour safer, the risk you run is that it will lose some of its “behaviors,” such as the adequate rising of bread.
“Every company has to think this through,” he said in the article. “Consumers’ expectations are higher now,” he added. “They want food to be safe but they also want it to taste good, be affordable, be convenient, and have a low environmental impact. The challenge before us is ‘how do we help people make informed decisions?’”
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