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Pa. man sues Taco Bell, farm over E. coli infection


The Associated Press

Jonathan Poet

PHILADELPHIA - A Pennsylvania man who became ill with an E. coli infection after eating food from a Taco Bell restaurant sued the fast-food chain's owner and a California scallions-grower on Friday.

Stephen Minnis, who lives in Schwenksville outside Philadelphia, filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell-parent Yum Brands Inc. and Boskovich Farms in federal court in Philadelphia, saying he got sick and had to be hospitalized twice after eating food from a Taco Bell in Gilbertsville.

Minnis claims the food his wife bought on Nov. 25 was not fit for human consumption and should never have been served. The lawsuit accuses the companies of being negligent and of violating federal, state and local food-safety regulations.

Green onions have not been definitively linked to the illnesses, but they are believed to be the cause of the outbreak, which has sickened dozens of people, mostly in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas.

Taco Bell removed green onions from its 5,800 restaurants after testing by an independent lab suggested the bacteria may have come from scallions. Yum Brands said it also sanitized the affected restaurants and set up a toll-free number for people to call with concerns.

Will Bortz, a Taco Bell spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"We're really focused on the investigation right now," Bortz said.

"We're trying to find the root cause of the illness and identify the product that caused this."

Minnis is represented by Seattle-based lawyer William Marler, a lead attorney in numerous food-borne illness lawsuits over the last several years.

"Although E. coli lawsuits serve the dual purpose of compensating victims fairly for their injuries and making those who caused the problem take legal responsibility, what we need is more stringent regulation of the fresh produce industry," Marler said. "It's time growers and processors cleaned up their act and prevented contaminated produce from reaching consumers."

Suzanne Schreck, a spokeswoman at Marler's law firm, said the attorney currently has more than a dozen clients in the latest outbreak, but more are being added daily. Marler plans to file individual lawsuits on behalf of each of those clients in their home states, Schreck said.

Taco Bell restaurants in eight Northeastern states received scallions that may be linked to the outbreak, according to McLane Co., which distributes the fast-food chain's vegetables.

The lawsuit claims that the contaminated onions came from Boskovich Farms, which also was implicated in a 2003 hepatitis A outbreak that sickened hundreds at a Chi Chi's restaurant in western Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit also notes that green onions from Taco Bell restaurants were implicated in a 2000 hepatitis A outbreak in Florida, Kentucky, and Nevada.

A message left for Lindsay Martinez, a Boskovich Farms spokeswoman, was not immediately returned.

She has said the Oxnard, Calif., company was cooperating with the fast-food chain as it attempts to track the source of the bacteria.

The farm, which is about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has not been contacted by health officials, she has said.

Also Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health said it had its first confirmed case of E. coli infection, an 18-year-old woman from Philadelphia. There are eight other cases listed as "probable,"

according to state health officials.

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the CDC, the strain of E. coli that caused the infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle. It can be spread if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.

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