Feb. 1, 2012 at 4:59 PM ET
Oklahoma health officials say that Taco Bell restaurants were the source of salmonella food poisoning linked to an outbreak that sickened 68 people in 10 states last fall.
Federal officials who have withheld the identity of the Mexican-style fast-food restaurant chain tied to the outbreak said they have not changed their position.
"Our response remains the same," said Lola Russell, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Kristy Bradley, the state's epidemiologist, had staff forward documents that confirmed that of the 16 Oklahoma residents infected with the outbreak strain of the bacteria, eight consumed food from Taco Bell. That included eight of 12 who were able to be interviewed in connection with the outbreak.
CDC officials have masked the source, identified only as "Restaurant Chain A," in accordance with what the agency said is a longstanding policy that balances public health risk with the business concerns of firms that could be harmed by bad publicity.
Oklahoma released the documents in response to requests from msnbc.com and others, said Leslea Bennet-Webb, a spokeswoman for the state health department. The agency originally deferred to CDC, and asked the agency if the documents should be protected from public disclosure. When CDC did not respond by a Tuesday deadline, the state agreed to release the information.
But food safety advocates had been putting pressure on state and federal agencies to reveal the name of firms involved in outbreaks in this case -- and those in the future.
"I think it just proves the point that it is always better to be transparent," said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer who used his blog to lobby vigorously for the release of the name. "Taco Bell could have looked like a hero by coming out and saying that it was a supplier problem and they are going to work hard to make sure it never happens again."
Rob Poetsch, a spokesman with Taco Bell Corp. a subsidary of Yum! Brands Inc., issued a statement late Wednesday, after msnbc.com reported that the company's name had been released:
"The CDC has stated the public health is not at any risk and this incident is completely over," he wrote. "They have not identified the food source of the food borneillness that occurred in October and November of 2011. The CDC indicated that some of the people who were ill ate at Taco Bell, while others did not. They believe that the problem likely occurred at the supplier level before it was delivered to any restaurant or food outlet. We take food quality and safety very seriously."
This is the third outbreak involving the restaurant chain since 2006. That year, contaminated lettuce was tied to an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7. In 2010, Taco Bell was eventually revealed as the source of two outbreaks of rare strains of salmonella that sickened 155 people in 21 states.
The hunt for the name followed an outbreak of salmonella Enteritidis investigated by the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and health officials in 10 states.
The wide-ranging probe found infections in far-flung states, but identified no specific food item or ingredient responsible for the illnesses, likely because several ingredients were mixed together in many menu items, officials said.
However, officials noted that ground beef was an unlikely source of infection because of the safe handling practices used by Taco Bell.
Ultimately, officials concluded that contamination likely occurred before food products reached Taco Bell locations, the report said.
CDC officials confirmed 16 victims in Oklahoma and more in nine other states, including 43 in Texas, two in Kansas and one each in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio and Tennessee.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, the CDC's director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, said that the agency has long tried to weigh the public health risk of an outbreak with the concerns of the business involved. That ensures future cooperation under a voluntary system, he said.
"If there's not an important public health reason to use the name publicly, CDC doesn't use the name publicly," he said.
This is the second time a state has broken ranks with CDC and FDA officials to name Taco Bell as the source of an outbreak. In 2010, Oregon epidemiologist Dr. William Keene told media outlets that the source was Taco Bell. CDC officials said the information was released "in error," but Keene told msnbc.com it was deliberate, indeed.
"It was a normal release of what we considered public information," Keene said. "There was no compelling reason to keep it secret then."