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Taco Bell eyed as CDC looks into salmonella outbreak

By Jere Downs, Louisville Journal Courier

August 6, 2010

Federal health investigators are looking into a salmonella outbreak with suspected links to Taco Bell outlets that sickened at least 155 people in 21 states.

The outbreaks of two distinct salmonella pathogens appear to have subsided since peaking in June, although some cases may not have been reported yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said this week. No deaths have been reported.

The CDC identified the chain merely as “Mexican-style fast food,” but William E. Keene, senior epidemiologist for the state of Oregon and an investigator on the case, said the chain was Taco Bell, part of Louisville-based Yum! Brands.

“The link to Taco Bell has been apparent for weeks,” said Keene, adding researchers have yet to identify a single menu item or ingredient responsible for two rare subtypes of salmonella responsible for vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal distress beginning in early June.

“We have been pumping Yum! Brands for weeks for information and they have been very cooperative,” Keene added. “We have been kind of scratching our heads.”

The outbreak appeared to peak in late June and state and federal health officials are not advising the public to avoid specific foods or restaurants.

“We take food safety very seriously,” Taco Bell chief quality assurance officer Anna Ohki said in a statement late Friday. “Our food is perfectly safe to eat so our customers have absolutely no cause for concern.”

Of 30 cases reported mainly in central Kentucky, the last in mid-July, Kraig Humbaugh, director of epidemiology at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said 19 were linked to a single restaurant chain that he refused to identify.

“You don’t want to point the finger specifically there, when there are other risk factors,” Humbaugh said, “It is difficult to say what our public health message is if we don’t know if there’s a specific food to avoid.”.

The concentration of states with reported cases tend to stretch northward from Kentucky to the Great Lakes.

Two Taco Bell Taco Supremes consumed during a Frankfort lunch break in late May still haunt Jo Ann Smith, who filed a lawsuit in Franklin Co., Ky., Friday afternoon seeking damages for salmonella poisoning that resulted in a hospital stay. Smith, 45, said she still suffers from anemia and irritable bowel syndrome.

“I want to make people aware,” Smith, a software analyst for the state and Georgetown resident, said of the lawsuit that charges Taco Bell with negligence. “Peoples’ lives are at stake. A lot of these companies need to be more careful.”

In Kentucky, 11 of 30 food poisoning victims were hospitalized, state Health Cabinet spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said.

In Indiana, the outbreak struck 15 individuals, according to the CDC.

“Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps between 12 and 72 hours after infection,” the CDC press release added.

The two types connected to the outbreak are very rare strains of the 2,500 known subtypes of the salmonella bacteria. Most people recover without treatment after suffering symptoms between 4 and 7 days. Severe cases of salmonella are treated with antibiotics.

If a food source is identified and there “is evidence of continued risk of infection,” public health officials will issue advisories on how to lower risk, the CDC release added.

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