Two recent flour-related recalls have focused more attention on finding ways to make raw flour safer for consumers, according to Food Business News.
The goal is to find a reliable kill step for raw flour used in the CPG and bakery industries. However, no known treatment will completely remove the pathogen risk, nor will increased testing required by the Food Safety Modernization Act fix the problem. That's because microbes aren't always evenly distributed within a product, particularly in commercial quantities, making it harder to identify their presence.
Cost is a major factor when treatment options are considered, along with scalability and maintaining ingredient functionality. As a result, very little of the current U.S. flour production is being treated for microbial reduction, according to the publication.
The 2016 General Mills flour recall, plus the dozens of downstream products recalled as a result — along with this year's flour recall by Smucker Foods of Canada — have emphasized to manufacturers that something must be done to enhance safety.
There are several decontamination methods currently being used, or experimented with, for flour. These include heat treatment and pasteurization, which can negatively affect baking quality. Electron beams and cold plasma present scalability problems. Irradiation also works, though FDA hasn't approved the higher radiation doses that would be needed for flour. Only heat treatment and pasteurization are being used to any degree in the industry today.
Is it worth the expense and hassle for most manufacturers to try to make flour safer? Flour is a tricky ingredient to make safer because it can pick up contamination at many points along the supply chain — from the wheat grower to the milling operation to the factory making the products to the retail outlet. But that usually doesn't matter, considering that flour is usually a component of a product that is baked, fried, microwaved, or otherwise heated to a high enough temperature to kill pathogens.
People are prone to eat raw dough and batter despite knowing about the risk of foodborne illness. In response, the Food and Drug Administration launched a campaign warning the public of the dangers of consuming raw flour.
However, PSAs don't always work, and some of the responsibilities fall on manufacturers. One way food companies are limiting the pathogen problem is by using only pre-treated flour in products such as ready-to-bake cookie dough. Pillsbury produces its raw cookie dough using treated flour, while continuing to warn customers not to consume it prior to baking. Other cookie dough companies that encourage eating before baking also do this. These include Edoughble, a RTE cookie dough company, Hampton Creek’s Just Cookie Dough products, and Dō, a company that started selling cookie dough online and opened a Manhattan retail outlet this year.
"I wouldn’t trust any cookie dough that doesn’t" use heat-treated flour, Edoughble founder Rana Lustyan told USA Today. "It’s not worth the risk."
Heat-treated flours now in the marketplace include Ardent Mill's SafeGuard, Honeyville's TempSure All-Purpose Ready-to-Eat flour, Siemer Milling Co.'s Heat-Treated soft wheat flours, Bay State Milling's SimplySafe products and others, Food Business News reported. They are more expensive than non-treated flours, but they add that important safety factor to products.
Given the public health danger and the high costs of recalls, manufacturers should do their part to educate consumers about the risks of raw flour. This can be done on product packaging and through brand-sponsored recipes advertised on social media pages or on in-store signage.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to identify an acceptable and reasonably priced decontamination treatment method for raw flour that can be selectively applied to the product when needed and won't harm functionality. More research will be required, along with scaling-up and testing procedures, before a practical solution is found.