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Taco John's CEO aims to blunt damage from E. coli outbreak


Associated Press

December 19, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS - Taco John's International sought Tuesday to reassure customers that an E. coli outbreak at its Mexican restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa was isolated and now behind the company.

"We'd like to hope that people would feel confident to come back to Taco John's this afternoon for lunch," CEO Paul Fisherkeller said at a morning news conference in Minneapolis where he said he'd do that himself.

Fisherkeller said the company would cover the medical costs of all its customers who got sick. At least 80 people in the two states were sickened after eating at restaurants in three cities.

"We've been in business 38 years and this is the first time in the history of our chain that we've ever had this type of an incident, and it's been a shock to us all," Fisherkeller said.

Health officials in Minnesota suspect tainted lettuce as the likely source of contamination. Fisherkeller said all subsequent tests of Taco John's food, by both the state Health Department and independent sources, have come back clean.

The company also got its message out Tuesday with a full-page newspaper ad, in which Fisherkeller declared Taco John's food safe, noted it had replaced a produce supplier and launched a review of its "farm to fork" food safety procedures.

"We have been notified by state authorities that there have been no new confirmed cases since December 3 and this isolated incident appears to be behind us," Fisherkeller wrote in an open letter to customers.

Taco John's is based in Cheyenne, Wyo., and has 430 restaurants in 26 states. There are 133 restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa.

Health officials said the E. coli probably came from lettuce - which they suspect was contaminated in the fields where it was grown.

The Upper Midwest E. coli outbreak followed another unrelated spate of lettuce-related infections in the Northeast. At least 71 Taco Bell customers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware fell ill.

Like Taco Bell, Taco John's changed produce suppliers, dropping its Midwest supplier, St. Paul, Minn.-based Bix Produce LLC as sales at its Minnesota and Iowa restaurants slumped.

But Taco Bell was quicker to reassure consumers that its food was safe, taking out full-page newspaper ads to spread that message.

Until Tuesday, Taco John's had repeatedly said it was working on the problem, was sorry to see anyone suffer and was cooperating with public health authorities.

Taco Bell and Taco John's aren't related.

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