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No Food is Safe: How E.Coli Gets Into Flour

When we’re handling food, we may pay special attention to expiry dates on dairy products and practice safe handling with meat, but the recent recall of Robin Hood flour nationwide illustrates how we should never regard any food product as “safe”, either at home or in a food service operation.

How does E.coli get into flour anyway?

E.coli typically gets into flour via cross-contamination from other foods in the plant where it was processed. This was true in the case of a General Mills recall for flour produced in November 2015, and no cause has yet been determined for the most recent Canadian recall of Robin Hood flour in 10-kilogram bags with the expiry date of April 17, 2018. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is looking into the cause, and whether the recall should be widened to encompass additional product made around the same time. All of the products were made at a mill in Saskatoon.

How you can avoid E.coli infection or other food poisoning from flour?

While there isn’t much you can do about E.coli in a batch of flour from the plant, you can prevent E.coli or other contamination in your home kitchen or food service establishment by following these three steps.

1. Never eat flour or dough raw

Flour is not meant to be eaten uncooked - never eat it raw or create dishes where raw flour is present. In a food service establishment such as a pizza place or anywhere items are deep-fried with a flour batter, this may mean ensuring that raw flour can’t spill over onto cooked product while it is waiting for service or packaging. This is especially important in food service businesses which offer gluten-free options. Dishes that don’t require cooking and contain flour should be avoided. You should also skip eating raw dough.

2. Clean and sanitize all surfaces thoroughly.

A bit of flour may seem innocuous on a kitchen counter, but you should treat it like it’s liquid from raw meat and clean and sanitize it before starting on your next dish. After a baking session, clean and sanitize all surfaces as flour is fine and can fly everywhere.

3. Clean and sanitize containers between each flour batch.

If new flour is added to an old flour container, you are continually using the new product on top. This can be especially true in a restaurant environment, where flour containers are larger than those at home. Use up all your old flour from the container, wash the container, sanitize and let it air dry thoroughly before adding new flour to the container. For extra diligence, write the “Use By” date on your bag on a sticker which you place on the container, and remove old stickers and replace them with new ones each time the bag is changed - newer stickers placed over older ones could fall off. Use containers with tight lids for your flour to prevent contamination and insect infestation (e.g. weevils). While “use by” dates are a guideline for products like flour with such a large shelf life, food service operations should discard any flour past its use-by date.

The biggest lesson to take away from recalls of foods like flour, that aren’t usually suspects for food safety violations, is that no food is completely safe from contamination. This is a good guideline to keep in mind when dealing with allergies and food safety. Practice safe food handling methods always and you mitigate the risk.

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