Wheat flour has been identified as the source of multiple outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease caused by shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli (STEC). We have investigated the presence and genomic characteristics of STEC and related atypical enteropathogenic E. coli (aEPEC) in 200 bags of Swedish-produced retail wheat flour, representing 87 products and 25 brands. Samples were enriched in modified TSB and screened with real-time PCR targeting stx1, stx2, eae, and the serogroups O157, O121, and O26. Isolation was performed by IMS for suspected STEC/aEPEC O157, O121 and O26, and by screening pools of colonies for other STEC. Real-time PCR after enrichment revealed 12% of samples to be positive for shiga toxin genes (stx1 and/or stx2) and 11% to be positive for intimin (eae). Organic production, small-scale production or whole grain did not significantly influence shiga toxin gene presence or absence in a generalized linear mixed model analysis. Eight isolates of STEC were recovered, all of which were intimin negative. Multiple serotype/sequence type/shiga-toxin subtype combinations were recovered which have also been found in flour samples in other European countries. Most STEC types recovered were associated with sporadic cases of STEC among humans in Sweden, but no types known to have caused outbreaks or severe cases of disease (i.e. haemolytic-uraemic syndrome) were found. The most common finding was O187:H28 ST200 with stx2g, with possible links to cervid hosts. Wildlife associated with crop damage is a plausible explanation for at least some of the surprisingly high frequency of STEC in wheat flour.

This study was supported by the:
  • The Elsa and Ivar Sandberg Foundation
    • Principle Award Recipient: Robert Soderlund
  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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