Nestle Toll House cookie dough in a San Francisco store's refrigerator case.

Nestle Toll House cookie dough in a San Francisco store's refrigerator case in June. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

By Frank James

If you're the Nestle company trying to recover from a food-borne illness crisis affecting one of its popular products -- the raw refrigerated dough for its Toll House cookies -- the timing of a story in today's Washington Post was far from auspicious.

The company reintroduced its Toll House cookies to supermarkets just last week after E. coli contamination led to illnesses in scores of consumers.

Meanwhile, the Post this week ran a feature on Linda Rivera who was gravely sickened by the bacteria E coli O157:H7 linked to raw cookie dough produced by Nestle's plant in Danville, Va.

For a couple of reasons, the story could have a chilling effect of many consumers. One is the severity of Rivera's illness. The other: Nestle hasn't established the cause of the contamination

An excerpt:

Her mute state, punctuated only by groans, is the latest downturn in the swift collapse of her health that began in May when she curled up on her living room couch and nonchalantly ate several spoonfuls of the Nestl?? cookie dough her family had been consuming for years. Federal health officials believe she is among 80 people in 31 states sickened by cookie dough contaminated with a deadly bacteria, E. coli O157:H7.
The impact of the infection has been especially severe for Rivera and nine other victims who developed a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One, a 4-year-old girl from South Carolina, had a stroke and is partially paralyzed...
... Linda Rivera has just been trying to stay alive. Her cascading problems started about seven days after she ate the dough when her kidneys shut down and she went into septic shock. Then doctors had to remove part of her colon, which had become contaminated. Soon, her gallbladder was inflamed and had to be excised. Shortly after, her liver stopped functioning. It is unclear exactly what is causing her loss of speech, although the toxin produced by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria can attack the brain.
Of all the victims, Rivera has spent the most time in hospitals -- about 120 days since May. She was recovering well enough at one point to go home for nine days but, during that reprieve, she had to be rushed to the emergency room three times.
Her case is unusual because E. coli O157:H7 tends to most seriously affect the very young and old. At 57, Linda Rivera is not part of either vulnerable group. Her situation is also unique for the number of major organs that have been injured. Her family and one of her physicians said she had no underlying health problems that would have exacerbated the infection.
"Once these patients get into a downward spiral, it's hard to pinpoint why things go wrong," said Michael Gross, a kidney specialist who has treated Rivera. "The chances of her coming out of the hospital and getting into a normal life cycle are low."

As the story notes, and as I saw myself on a recent supermarket visit, the new packaging in which the dough is now being shipped warns consumers to cook the dough before eating it in larger, more prominent lettering than existed before.

That's good news as far as it goes.

An excerpt from the press release issued for the dough's reintroduction:

"We're proud to place Nestl?? Toll House refrigerated cookie dough back on store shelves," said Paul Bakus, General Manager, Nestl?? USA Baking Group. "While the FDA inspection at our Danville, Virginia facility has concluded, Nestl??'s commitment to food safety continues, as does our intensive testing. We test ingredients as they arrive and our cookie dough as it's made. We hope families around the country will continue to enjoy our cookies."

The bad news is that while proper cooking should kill any E. coli bacteria that happened to get in the dough again, anything the raw dough touches such as countertop surfaces, utensils or hands could be contaminated.

Which is why the Food and Drug Administration counseled consumers to dispose of packages of the Nestle dough when it learned of the contamination in May.

categories: Food

3:40 - September 1, 2009