NEW YORK — Federal authorities are investigating a new outbreak of a bacteria-triggered illness, this time related to a sweet treat treasured by the heartbroken and children-at-heart — packaged raw cookie dough.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its preliminary investigation shows "a strong association" between eating raw refrigerated cookie dough made by Nestle and the illnesses of 65 people in 29 states whose lab results have turned up E. coli bacteria since March. The company recalled its refrigerated cookie and brownie dough.
The recall, by a company with a reputation for strong quality control, once again demonstrates the difficulty of ensuring the safety of the nation's food supply. The increasingly disparate nature of contaminated foods — recently including pistachios, peanut butter and chicken pot pies — has complicated the task of illness hunters and food inspectors because no one is sure anymore which foods may be risky.
E. coli O157, the strain linked to the Nestle dough, is a particularly dangerous pathogen normally found in contaminated meat. It causes abdominal cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Most adults recover within a week, but the disease can lead to serious kidney damage and death.
"We're all having trouble figuring out how E. coli O157 gets in cookie dough," said Dr. Timothy F. Jones, Tennessee's state epidemiologist. "This wasn't on anybody's radar screen."
Officials have been hunting since March for the cause of cases from across the country that shared the same genetic fingerprint. Because most victims were young and female, the investigation was unusual from the start. Twenty-five people have been hospitalized; no one has died.
Among the early food suspects were strawberries and fruit smoothies, but neither quite fit. On Wednesday, health investigators in Washington state proposed a link with Nestle's cookie dough, prompting officials in the rest of the country to reinterview victims. All six in Minnesota confirmed eating dough. (No related illnesses have been reported in Florida.)
Nestle is telling consumers to return cookie and brownie dough products to grocers for a full refund. The recall does not affect other Toll House products, including ice cream that contains raw Toll House dough.
Spokeswoman Laurie MacDonald for Nestle USA in Glendale, Calif., a unit of Switzerland-based Nestle SA, said the company has stopped making the refrigerated dough while the FDA investigates the Danville, Va., factory where all the recalled items are made. "We hope to resume production as soon as possible," she said.
Nestle said about 300,000 cases of Nestle Toll House cookie dough are affected by the recall, which covers chocolate chip dough, gingerbread, sugar, peanut butter dough and other varieties.
The FDA said consumers should not try to cook the dough, even though it would be safe to eat if cooked, because the bacteria could move to their hands and to countertops and other cooking surfaces.
Raw cookie dough is so popular that it has spawned more than 40 groups on Facebook, complete with postings that read like love notes.
Stacey Oyler, a 33-year-old San Francisco resident, called it her "secret indulgence" — a treat that became irresistible when she was pregnant with her second child last August.
"I love the combination of the salt and sweet," she said. "You can't get that from a piece of chocolate."
But no raw cookie is necessarily safe. The eggs in Nestle Toll House's dough are pasteurized, which eliminates most of the risk of salmonella infection from raw eggs. But other ingredients could contain pathogens or bacteria, and the company warns in labels not to eat the dough raw.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.