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E. coli sickens more than 35 in N.J. and L.I.

December 4, 2006

Associated Press

An outbreak of E. coli bacteria has sickened more than 35 people on Long Island and in central New Jersey, and officials are investigating the Taco Bell restaurants where some of them ate as the possible source of the infections.

Two of the people affected in New Jersey have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be fatal or cause permanent damage to the kidneys, health officials said.

It is not immediately clear whether the New Jersey and Long Island outbreaks are related.

A Taco Bell restaurant in South Plainfield, N.J., where 11 of the people who were sickened ate, has been closed for inspection. Four Taco Bell outlets in Suffolk County were closed, and Nassau County officials asked that another four of its locations in their county be closed.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi said the restaurant chain had yet to respond to the request, but said company officials were cooperating with the county health department.

He said the closures were being sought "out of an abundance of caution."

Nine of 11 people confirmed with E. coli in Suffolk County reported eating at the restaurants between Nov. 20 and Nov. 25, said Dr. David G. Graham, the county's acting health commissioner.

Three people in Nassau County -- including an 11-year-old boy who has been hospitalized for about a week -- were also suffering from the illness, Suozzi said. At least one of the Nassau County patients ate at Taco Bell.

"This is a precautionary measure," Graham said, adding that officials were working with "federal and state agencies in order to protect the health of the public."

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strain of E. coli that caused the New Jersey infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle, and most infections are associated with undercooked meat. It can be passed from person to person if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.

E. coli may also be found in sprouts or green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 were sickened by a strain of E. coli that was traced to packaged spinach grown in California.

Authorities in New Jersey had yet to determine how and where the victims, mostly children, became infected. Investigators focused on a Taco Bell restaurant in South Plainfield where 11 of the victims ate.

The restaurant, which has been closed voluntarily since Thursday, passed a health code inspection last week and tests were being performed on 21 of its employees.

Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell Corp., did not immediately return a call regarding the cases on Long Island. In previous comments about the New Jersey outbreak, he said the company has "taken every precaution, including temporarily closing the restaurant until the investigation is completed, as nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers and employees."

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