In a familiar refrain, federal health authorities are warning consumers about another food safety concern - this time it's Nestle's Toll House cookie and brownie dough, which may be tainted with potentially deadly E. coli.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 65 people in 29 states have been sickened after eating raw cookie dough. About 25 people have been hospitalized since March. Infections have been caused by E. coli O157:H7, a toxin-producing strain that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the worst cases, kidney failure and death.
No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak, and none of the cases are in New York, but the recall is nationwide. Federal health officials say their probe has just begun and additional states will probably be added to the list.
So far, investigators have no idea how the bacteria got into Nestle's plant. "It is very early in the investigation and we really don't know anything about the source of contamination," FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said Friday.
Lola Russell of the CDC said the outbreak was picked up by PulseNet, a computerized surveillance system into which state health departments enter data on food-borne illnesses. She said the CDC began interviewing people sickened by the suspect strain in late May and were able to trace the outbreak's onset to March.
Nestle USA's Baking Division initiated a voluntary recall Friday of its refrigerated cookie dough, as well as a host of other products in which the raw dough is an ingredient. "We estimate this recall impacts about 300,000 cases of Toll House refrigerated cookie dough," said Sheena Menon, a Nestle spokeswoman. She said consumers should not bake the product but return it to the store for a full refund.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook University Medical Center, said E. coli O157:H7 infections are serious because the bacteria secrete a "shiga toxin" that can cause a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. "The toxin . . . can cause multi-system involvement," she said, adding the kidneys are most vulnerable and may shut down completely.
Don Mays, a policy analyst at Consumer's Union in Yonkers, said the latest scare underscores why the FDA needs "more bite in its authority" and a larger army of inspectors. He reiterated calls to enact food safety legislation - a measure is under consideration on Capitol Hill.