Taco Bell bans green onions after E coli outbreak

Dec 6, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – An outbreak of Escherichia coli infections in people who ate at 11 Taco Bell restaurants in New York and New Jersey has sickened more than 3 dozen people in 3 states and prompted the company to remove green onions from its outlets nationwide.

At least 42 people in New Jersey and New York and 1 in Pennsylvania fell ill with E coli O157:H7 infections in the outbreak, the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger reported today. The Associated Press (AP) said today that 9 people remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy who was in stable condition with kidney damage.

In a news release, Taco Bell Corp. announced today it had removed green onions from all of its 5,800 restaurants after an independent testing laboratory hired by the company found three samples of green onions that were positive for E coli O157:H7 in preliminary tests.

"In an abundance of caution, we've decided to pull all green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E coli outbreak," said Taco Bell President Greg Creed in the press release.

Seventeen types of food taken from a Taco Bell in South Plainfield, N.J., tested negative for pathogens, Marilyn Riley, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, told the Star-Ledger. She added that the state's public health laboratory will continue testing additional samples.

New Jersey health officials told the AP their investigation would likely focus on produce because some of the people who ate at New Jersey Taco Bell outlets are vegetarians.

E coli O157:H7 is the same strain blamed for an outbreak associated with fresh spinach that sickened 200 people and caused 3 deaths in September and October. The strain produces a toxin that causes diarrhea—often bloody—and abdominal cramps, but typically no fever. The illness usually resolves in 5 to 10 days but can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, potentially leading to kidney failure or death, in 2% to 7% of patients.

The first illness was reported Nov 17, the Star-Ledger reported on Dec 3. Though health officials haven't announced a definitive cause, media reports say that most of the patients had eaten at Taco Bell restaurants in South Plainfield, Edison Township, and Franklin Township, N.J.

Most of the patients are children, ranging in age from 1 to 23 years old, David Papi, Middlesex County health director, told the Star-Ledger.

All 11 Taco Bells implicated in the E coli outbreak used the same food distributor, Texas-based McLane Co., the AP reported. Taco Bell representatives, along with state and federal health inspectors, toured a Burlington, N.J., distribution center that supplied 8 restaurants in New York and 3 in New Jersey.

Yesterday Taco Bell said in a press release that it had closed 8 of its restaurants for 1 day so the company could replace food supplies and clean and sanitize the restaurants, utensils, and cooking equipment.

In September 2003, green onions served in restaurants were linked to outbreaks of hepatitis A in 4 states, including one in Pennsylvania that sickened more than 600 people and resulted in 3 deaths. The US Food and Drug Administration confirmed that green onions in 3 of the outbreaks came from Mexico.

See also:

Taco Bell site with access to news releases
http://www.tacobell.com/

Dec 10, 2003, CIDRAP News article "FDA confirms Mexican scallions caused three hepatitis outbreaks"

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