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Attorney: Vegetables Likely Culprit in Outbreak Linked to Taco Bell

Andrew Schneider, AOL News

August 7, 2010

An attorney for a nationally known food safety law firm said Saturday that the salmonella outbreak linked to Taco Bells in 21 states is likely the result of vegetables being brought into the stores.

"Since the outbreak is so widespread, it's likely that the contamination was on the vegetables when they arrived at the stores and not something that happened while the food was being prepared," attorney Bill Marler of Marler Clark told AOL News.

Marler's firm has filed a suit on behalf of a 45-year-old Kentucky mother who said she became ill after eating at a Taco Bell.

He said his firm also was involved with two prior food poisoning outbreaks at Taco Bell. In 2000, there was a hepatitis outbreak in green onions at the chain, and in 2006 an E. coli outbreak sickened many patrons.

A Centers for Disease Control investigator acknowledged to AOL News Saturday morning that Marler's assumptions are "logical and that's what we're exploring."

Meanwhile, the number of people already sickened by salmonella after possibly eating at Taco Bell and other Mexican fast-food outlets in 21 states may increase beyond the 155 cases already reported.

Reports of illnesses appear to have peaked, but the CDC in Atlanta says the time between when a person becomes ill and when that illness is reported takes an average of two to three weeks. Also, as with most food-borne pathogens, many illnesses are never reported.

The agency says its investigators used DNA analysis of salmonella bacteria obtained through diagnostic testing to identify and confirm cases of illness that may be part of these outbreaks. They found that the illnesses were caused by two rare strains of salmonella – Salmonella Hartford and Salmonella Baildon.

In past outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, the pathogens were linked to lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and green onion, many of which were imported from Mexico. In these outbreaks, no specific food item or ingredient was found to be associated with the illnesses.

The CDC is working with food safety specialists in Oregon, Washington, Kentucky and other states, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Food detectives have known since April where many of the illnesses were contracted, but most federal and state investigators referred to it only as "restaurant chain A."

Eventually, CDC acknowledged that it was a Mexican fast-food chain. Bill Keene, Oregon's no-nonsense senior epidemiologist, said the chain is Taco Bell.

"It's been clear for weeks that Taco Bell was the source for many of the illnesses," he said. "It's equally clear that it's not all Taco Bells. It's also not a single Taco Bell restaurant."

The linkage became even more obvious Friday when Marler's firm filed lawsuits against Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell.

It was brought on behalf of Jo Ann Smith, who said she purchased food from a Taco Bell in Frankfort, Ky., on May 24 and was hospitalized soon after.

All food safety agencies have to navigate the politically slippery slope between giving the public immediate information on what food outlets to avoid and concerns about unconfirmed information destroying the reputation of the businesses allegedly involved.

This does not go over well with food safety advocates and many members of Congress.

A Taco Bell spokesman said the chain's food is "perfectly safe."

"We take food safety very seriously," said Taco Bell chief quality assurance officer Anna Ohki, according to the Courier-Journal of Louisville. "Our food is perfectly safe to eat, so our customers have absolutely no cause for concern."

The CDC says that between 30 percent and 40 percent of those identified with the two strains were hospitalized but no deaths have been reported.

Most people infected with salmonella develop symptoms including diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12–72 hours after infection, which is usually diagnosed by stool sample analysis. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, although more serious illnesses can develop, especially in the young, elderly, and immune-compromised.

As this point, the salmonella-caused illness have been reported in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North and South Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.

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