Agencies zero in on Taco Bell
NEW YORK -- As many as 84 people in seven states have been confirmed as having the strain of E. coli bacteria involved in an outbreak that may be linked to Taco Bell restaurants, officials said Friday.
South Carolina and Utah are the latest states to report outbreaks of the illness. State and federal agencies are still trying to pin down the source, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vast majority of the reported cases have eaten at Taco Bell restaurants prior to their illness.
Dr. Greg Braden of the CDC told CNN that his agency and state health departments have not seen any other sources of the illness and are zeroing in on Taco Bell and its suppliers of green onions.
"We have some leads to say that it might be green onions, and that's based upon some preliminary testing that's been done in a number of laboratories right now, but the testing has not been confirmed, so we're keeping the options open, and the investigations that we're doing will be covering a wide range of foods, all of them served at Taco Bell specifically," Braden said.
On a voice recording for consumers looking for more information on E.
coli, Taco Bell says, "Many of the people who reported becoming ill did not eat at Taco Bell."
Representatives for the company could not be reached Friday to confirm the number of cases that had been directly linked to food served at its restaurants.
On Wednesday, Taco Bell said it had ordered the removal of all green onions from its 5,800 outlets nationwide, after three samples tested by an independent laboratory were found to be positive for E. coli.
Food suppliers in focus
New Jersey health officials have focused attention on a food distribution warehouse in Burlington, and urged all Taco Bell locations that received shipments from there to "discard all current food supplies and clean and sanitize their facilities." Taco Bell would not confirm that the warehouse, operated by McLane Foodservice Inc., was being investigated.
Ready Pac, a food distribution company that supplies Taco Bell's Northeast operations through a processing plant in Florence, New Jersey, says it stopped producing and shipping green onions to the restaurant's franchises on Wednesday following reports of the outbreak.
The company said in a statement that it is working with regulatory agencies and industry experts to determine the source of the bacteria.
Boskovich Farms in Oxnard, California, is a main provider of green onions to Taco Bell, but the company says it has not been contacted by the FDA or any government agencies although it is aware of the E. coli outbreak. The company said in a statement that it is working closely with Taco Bell and Ready Pac to pinpoint the source of the bacteria.
E. coli cases -- first reported November 29 in New Jersey, followed by others in New York and Pennsylvania -- now have appeared in Delaware, Connecticut, South Carolina and Utah, according to the CDC. Interviews with the victims showed that most of the first 58 people who became ill had eaten at Taco Bells.
As of Thursday, the FDA said at least 35 people have been hospitalized with the same E. coli strain since the outbreak, some in serious condition.
At least one lawsuit relating to the outbreak has been filed against Taco Bell. The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday by the family of an 11-year-old Long Island, New York, boy, Tyler Vormittag. It claims the boy contracted E. coli after eating at a Taco Bell on November 24 in Riverdale, New York.
"When a restaurant serves food, there is the presumption that it is safe for human consumption," said the family's attorney, Andrew Siben.
"Taco Bell breached that duty when serving Mr. Vormittag a taco."
The damages being sought will depend on the extent of injury to the fifth-grader, Siben said. The suit was filed in State Supreme Court in Suffolk County.
Calls to Taco Bell to update the status of its investigation and to obtain reaction to the lawsuit have not been returned.