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A possible E. coli culprit?

December 5, 2006

Asbury Park Press (NJ)

Ken Serrano and David Stegon

The E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 25 New Jersey residents, mostly children, has been linked to at least five Taco Bell restaurants, according to health authorities.

State health officials were awaiting test results late Monday on another 12 people, which would bring the total to 37 cases.

One person contracted the bacterial infection after eating at the Taco Bell on Easton Avenue in Franklin, and another became ill after eating at one on Inman Avenue in Edison, said David Papi, director of public health for Middlesex County.

Two workers at the South Plainfield eatery, where 18 of the victims ate before falling ill, tested positive for E. coli while not showing symptoms, authorities said.

Monday night, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services said two more central New Jersey Taco Bell restaurants are linked to the outbreak. Both are on Route 22 in Union County.

In the 22 cases tracked by Middlesex County, people fell ill between Nov. 17 and 28.

The Middlesex County Public Health Department has set up a telephone line for the public to report suspected cases of E. coli infection at (732) 745-8995.

An E. coli outbreak also hit New York, but there was no word yet if it is related to the New Jersey cases.

Taco Bell President Greg Creed said the company was sanitizing restaurants in the two states and replacing food ingredients before reopening.

"Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers and employees," Creed said in a statement. "We are obviously very concerned about the well-being of all those who have been affected by this incident and will continue to work closely with health authorities to get to the root cause of the issue."

Of the 22 Middlesex County people infected, only two did not eat at a Taco Bell, Papi said.

Health inspectors and epidemiologists are still trying to determine the exact source of the E. coli 0157:H7, the strain that has afflicted people in New Jersey. The infection often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

The strain can be spread through contact. Outbreaks are often linked to undercooked ground beef, but the bacterium can also turn up in sprouts, lettuce, spinach, unpasteurized milk and juice, and contaminated water. Symptoms occur from one day to a week after exposure.

The food, not cross-contamination from people, is now the focus in New Jersey.

But Taco Bells turn over food very quickly and any contaminated products most likely have come and gone, officials said.

John Grun, director of health and human services and a health inspector for Edison, said samples of food nonetheless have been taken at the Inman Avenue Taco Bell and at another in the Menlo Park Mall.

Any distributors for Taco Bell will also fall under scrutiny, officials said.

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