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We Finally Know the Source of That Massive E. Coli Outbreak

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This week, General Mills announced a voluntary recall of 10 million pounds of its flour over possible E. coli contamination. Now, the FDA has traced the outbreak back to its source: a single factory in Kansas City.

The CDC had been looking into the mysterious 38-case E. coli outbreak, which had spread across 20 states, since it began last December. On Tuesday, General Mills announced a voluntary recall of 10 million pounds of flour, after the CDC’s interviews turned up an underlying theme of raw dough or batter eaten right before people got sick.


At the time, it was merely a strong suspicion that the outbreak had started somewhere in one of their factories. Now, though the FDA has managed to trace back the outbreak to just one General Mills flour factory in Kansas City where the contamination took place during the course of one week in November 2015.

If it was only one factory over one week, however, why is the outbreak on such a massive scale—in terms of both number of cases and pounds recalled? The answer to that question has a lot to do with how we use flour. Flour is shelf-stable and used only a few cups at a time. That means that the flour we buy one day is likely to still be hanging around our cupboards months later.


Even more problematic for this outbreak, flour isn’t something that tends to stay in its packaging. It’s pretty common to transfer flour from its bag to another container—and then to just keep topping off that container when things get low. Usually, that’s no problem but, if just one of those bags is contaminated with E. coli, the whole container (and every subsequent bag you pour into it) is also now contaminated.

The FDA is continuing to investigate just how the E. coli got into the factory in the first place. In the meantime, the whole list of recalled foods is right here. The agency is also reminding people of their not-particularly fun (but probably much healthier) advice to quit eating raw doughs and batters.