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Taco Bell linked to 21-state salmonella outbreak

Irvine-based Taco Bell is the prime suspect in a nationwide food scare that has sickened more than 150 people in 21 states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said victims were made ill with two rare strains of salmonella over a period of time ranging from April 1 to July 19. So far, illnesses have not been reported in California.

Last week, federal health officials tied the illnesses to food eaten “at a Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain.”

On Monday, CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said her agency “can’t confirm” the restaurant under investigation. However, state health officials in Washington and Oregon, where cases have erupted, said Taco Bell restaurants are tied to the food scare.

“Some [tainted] food went to Taco Bell and other places,” said William Keene, senior epidemiologist with Oregon Public Health Division, to the Register on Monday.

In fact, roughly 70 percent of the victims interviewed said they “ate at Taco Bell,” said Keene, who has been part of numerous conference calls with state and federal health officials about the salmonella probe.

In response to being named in the outbreak, Taco Bell’s Chief Quality Assurance Officer Anna Ohki sent this statement to the Register:

“We take food safety very seriously and our food is perfectly safe to eat, so our customers have absolutely no cause for concern.”

On Friday, foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell on behalf of a Kentucky client who was hospitalized for four days. Kentucky, which has reported 28 victims so far, was among the worst states hit by the two-strain outbreak.

Marler said other clients, not named in the suit, have also confirmed eating at Taco Bell.

“We’ve been tracking [these strains] for three or four months,” Marler said in a phone interview Monday. “We looked at the common denominator. It was pretty clear it was Taco Bell.”

Taco Bell declined to comment further about the outbreak and the lawsuit.

This is the third time in 10 years that the Mexican fast-food chain has been tied to a major national food scare. The most damaging to its reputation came in 2006, when 71 people were sickened after eating at Taco Bell restaurants in the East Coast. (Timeline of Taco Bell food events)

While it is clear that most victims ate at Taco Bell, Keene said the chain is not totally to blame.

The CDC has not linked the outbreak to one specific food. However, Keene said it was more than likely “lettuce or tomatoes” that arrived at restaurants already tainted. That supply chain is under investigation.

As produce outbreaks continue across the nation, food safety advocates have pushed for better oversight. Compared to beef, produce is inspected far less at the federal level.

“Produce is a recognized problem, [especially for chains] that buy huge volumes of produce,” said Keene. “I hope they are working with suppliers to reduce risk.”

After several produce scares in 2006, California growers created a “leafy green” pact that calls for better oversight of local produce. As a result, audits at the field and processing plant level have increased significantly in the state.

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