FDA joins probe as E coli outbreak widens

Dec 7, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday it was joining the probe of a growing Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast.

The agency, in a press release, said 43 probable cases were linked to the outbreak, in which green onions are a suspected cause. Cases include 20 in New Jersey, 15 in New York, 7 in Pennsylvania, and 1 in Connecticut. Additional cases are suspected in all four states, officials said.

Thirty five people have been hospitalized, including three with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure, which can be fatal, the FDA said.

The New York Times reported today that the number of cases has grown to 99 and that the outbreak involves additional restaurants, a second food distributor, and a food processing plant that supplied green onions to at least one of the two distributors that supplied the implicated Taco Bell restaurants with produce, including green onions.

E coli O157:H7, which often causes bloody diarrhea but no fever, was also blamed for an outbreak earlier this fall that was traced to eating fresh spinach. That outbreak sickened 200 people and resulted in 3 deaths.

Taco Bell Corp announced yesterday it was removing green onions from all of its 5,800 restaurants after its own preliminary tests indicated E coli O157:H7 in some samples. However, the company has not confirmed the results. "In view of this, FDA is continuing to explore the possibility of other food commodities being the source of the E coli," the FDA said.

The FDA said it was testing samples of all nonmeat items served at Taco Bell that could carry E coli O157:H7, including cilantro, cheddar cheese, blended cheese, green onions, yellow onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. "At this time, the agency does not have data implicating or ruling out any of these items," the agency said.

Meanwhile in New York, a Suffolk County laboratory confirmed the outbreak strain in 3 of 4 green onions from a previously unopened package from a Taco Bell restaurant in Deer Park, the Times reported. Suffolk County's acting health commissioner, David Graham, told the Times that the testing suggests the product was contaminated before it arrived at the restaurant.

Media outlets reported yesterday that state and federal investigators toured a Burlington, N.J., warehouse of Texas-based McLane Co., which supplies 8 of the implicated Taco Bell stores. Today the Times said a distributor in Albany, N.Y., supplies some upstate New York Taco Bells that are linked to the outbreak.

Federal and state officials are also investigating a food processor, Ready Pac Produce in Florence, N.Y., that cuts, washes, and sanitizes green onions that are sent to some distributors that service Taco Bell outlets in the Northeast, the Times reported.

The Times story said Ready Pac bought the onions from Boskovich Farms, a California producer. A spokesperson for Boskovich told the Times it was working closely with Taco Bell during the investigation.

Taco Bell has had problems with contaminated green onions before, the Times report said. In 2000, 23 Florida residents fell ill with hepatitis A after eating green onions in Taco Bell restaurants. Andrew Weisbecker, a Seattle attorney who represented plaintiffs in the Florida outbreak, told the newspaper that similar outbreaks occurred around the same time in Nevada and Kentucky.

The FDA advised consumers who are concerned that they may have contracted an E coli infection to seek medical attention.

In other food contamination news, FDA spokesperson Michael Herndon told CIDRAP News that the agency would not be conducting a traceback investigation regarding a recent Salmonella outbreak linked to restaurant tomatoes.

The outbreak, which involved Salmonella enterica serotype Newport, occurred over the summer and early fall, sickened 106 people in 19 states and was first reported in late November. Most of the cases occurred on the East Coast.

A larger Salmonella outbreak linked to restaurant tomatoes, which occurred in early November, involved S enterica serotype Typhimurium and sickened 183 Americans in 21 states, plus two Canadians.

Herndon said the FDA decided not to do a traceback on the smaller outbreak because it lacked a well-defined cluster of cases. "Given the serotype and PFGE [pulsed-field gel electrophoresis] type and time frame and distribution, we are going to assume the tomatoes are from the eastern shore of Virginia," he said by e-mail.

See also:

Dec 6 FDA press release on E coli outbreak

Dec 1 CIDRAP News article "Second Salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes"

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