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Central Valley lettuce cited in eatery illness

Taco Bell outbreak sickened 71 people late last year

February 10, 2007

Gannett News Service

Brian Tumulty

WASHINGTON - Food-related illness among patrons at Taco Bell restaurants in four states late last year has been linked to lettuce from California's Central Valley, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman announced Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 71 people became ill - 53 were hospitalized - as a result of eating at Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania between late November and mid-December. One of the illnesses was reported by a resident of a fifth state - South Carolina - who ate at a Taco Bell in Pennsylvania.

Eight of those affected developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a form of kidney failure, according to CDC reports filed with the FDA.

The FDA announcement about where the infected Taco Bell lettuce originated places the source in the same general region as the lettuce that sickened 81 people in the Midwest around the same time.

Those victims, including 26 who were hospitalized - two of whom developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome - ate at Taco John's restaurants in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to CDC reports filed with the FDA.

Taco John's, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Irvine-based Taco Bell, are unrelated restaurant chains. Taco Bell is owned by Yum! Brands Inc. headquartered in Louisville, Ky.

FDA officials announced in December that a DNA trace of the E. coli involved in the two outbreaks did not provide a match.

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon on Friday announced the origin of the infected lettuce served by Taco Bell.

The announcement came in response to a Gannett News Service story that referred to earlier news reports that the E. coli outbreak might have occurred from produce imported from Mexico.

Will Bortz, spokesman for Taco Bell, said, "We have never discussed who our suppliers are or where our products are grown."

A final FDA report on the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak is a month or more away, Herndon said.

Before then, the agency will issue a report on September's E. coli outbreak among about 200 people in 26 states who ate fresh spinach, Herndon said. That outbreak has been traced by the FDA to fields in Monterey and San Benito counties of California.

At a congressional hearing Thursday on food safety, lawmakers were told an estimate 325,000 Americans require hospitalization annually because of food-borne illnesses.

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