NEW YORK – Federal authorities are investigating a new national 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 federal Centers for Disease Control 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.
About 25 of those people have been hospitalized, but no one has died. E. coli is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and, in the most severe cases, kidney failure.
Nestle USA voluntarily recalled all of its Toll House refrigerated cookie dough products after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised consumers to throw away any Nestle Toll House cookie dough products in their homes and asked retailers, restaurateurs and other foodservice operations not to sell or serve any of the recalled products.
Customers also can return any recalled product where they bought it for a full refund. The recall does not affect other Toll House products, including ice cream that contains raw Toll House dough.
FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said officials were confident that Nestle refrigerated dough products caused the outbreak.
"This has been a very quickly moving situation," said Roz O'Hearn, spokeswoman for Nestle's baking division, adding the company took action within 24 hours of learning of the problem.
Spokeswoman Laurie MacDonald for Nestle USA in Glendale, Calif., a unit of Switzerland-based Nestle SA, said the company has temporarily stopped making the refrigerated dough products 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.
There are about 550 employees at the facility, just across the border with North Carolina, about half making Toll House products. Spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn said Friday the company doesn't know how many will be temporarily laid off, but it could be as many as 250.
Nestle holds a 41 percent share of the prepared cookie dough market.
The recall includes refrigerated cookie bar dough, cookie dough tubs, cookie dough tubes, limited edition cookie dough items, seasonal cookie dough and Ultimates cookie bar dough. 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. She said she still indulges occasionally.
"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 product labels not to eat the dough raw.
Several recent food recalls have been related to bacterial contamination, including a salmonella outbreak last winter traced to a peanut company that sickened more than 600 people and that was blamed for at least nine deaths. A separate outbreak of salmonella last year linked to jalapeno peppers from Mexico led 1,400 people to become ill.
Sarah Klein, staff attorney in the food safety group at consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the cookie dough news disheartening.
"Unfortunately, I don't think that people who have been working in food safety for years can be surprised at this point and sadly, I don't think the American people are surprised either," Klein said.