Product Liability

Investigators still baffled over cookie dough contamination

Food safety authorities and microbiologists arrived at Nestle’s Danville, Virginia plant to investigate the likely presence of E. coli bacteria in refrigerated cookie dough products. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been baffled by the bacteria’s presence in the cookie dough because it is a type of food unlikely to contain E. coli.

The E. coli outbreak has sickened 70 people in 30 states since March 2009. Thirty of the reported illnesses led to hospitalization. While some of the E. coli infections have led to serious kidney damage, no deaths from renal failure or other complications have been reported.

The strain of E. coli found in the Nestle products lives in the lower intestines of cattle and other livestock and is typically spread after meat products have become contaminated with fecal matter. E. coli may also be found on unwashed produce, which was the case when contaminated spinach sickened dozens of people in the U.S. in 2006.

Because the contaminated cookie dough products don’t contain ingredients that harbor the bacteria and aren’t produced in shared facilities, investigators haven’t been able to determine how the E. coli found its way into the Nestle products.

Authorities are analyzing the ingredients, the factory’s premises and machinery, the workers and their health, and the plant’s proximity to cattle. The government is also considering whether the dough was contaminated intentionally.

The latest E. coli outbreak calls attention once again to the shortcomings of the U.S. food safety system and federal regulations. Congress has been working on new legislation that would hold food manufacturers to higher standards. At the same time, the FDA’s inspection system is being improved and its enforcement powers increased. The expected changes may come as early as this week.