Video: Confusion over toxic onions at Taco Bell

updated 12/12/2006 7:37:13 PM ET 2006-12-13T00:37:13

Federal testing has failed to confirm green onions as the source of an outbreak of E. coli that sickened 64 people who ate in Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast, health officials said Monday.

Over the weekend, Taco Bell officials said they determined that scallions were the likely source of the bacteria. But follow-up federal testing of those samples were negative for E. coli.

“In that context, we have not ruled out any food items,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Meanwhile, health officials in New York said a sample of white onions taken from a Taco Bell restaurant tested positive for E. coli. However, that strain of bacteria hasn’t been linked to any cases of illness in the United States anytime in the previous 30 days. The positive sample initially was mistakenly identified as being green onion, Acheson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 64 E. coli cases in five states, most in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania plus two in Delaware and one in South Carolina. The South Carolina patient had eaten at a Pennsylvania Taco Bell.

Meanwhile, nearly three dozen people have fallen ill with symptoms consistent with E. coli infection after eating at a Taco John’s restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa. And authorities were investigating a case in which several people became ill after eating at a Taco John’s in Albert Lea, Minn.

Paul Fisherkeller, president of the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Taco John’s, said in a statement, “We hope for the speedy recovery of anyone who has fallen ill and are cooperating fully with health departments in both states, while also conducting our own investigation.”

There is no indication the outbreaks at the two taco chains are linked, but the CDC has not ruled out a connection, said Dr. Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist with the agency. Iowa officials suspect a sick restaurant worker could have spread the illness. The two restaurant chains are not related.

It could take until midweek to determine if the Taco Bell outbreak is over, Braden said. However, there have been no reports of anyone falling ill after Dec. 2, he added.

Taco Bell continued to exclude scallions from its ingredient list despite the FDA’s finding. “We won’t be considering any changes to our decision until the FDA and CDC conclude their investigation,” Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said.

Taco Bell President Greg Creed said that independent testing on ingredients served in the chain’s restaurants did not indicate the presence of E. coli bacteria.

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“As nearly half the entire U.S. adult population eats at a Taco Bell at least once a month, it’s easy to understand how we might be considered associated with this illness,” Creed said in a statement issued from Irvine, Calif., where the subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc. is located.

“Based on this testing and all that we know today, I can reassure you that all Taco Bell food is safe and strict standards are being upheld at all of our restaurants,” he said.

Lawmakers call for task force
On Tuesday, several lawmakers, including Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both Democrats from New York, called on the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a joint task force to examine the E. coli outbreak and recommend changes in laws and regulations to prevent contamination of food.

After being harvested, most produce is moved to processing plants where it is washed, sorted and cooled for transport to supermarkets or distribution centers around the country.

Major distributors follow resting guidelines at various steps along the chain. For the past decade, all the major restaurant and supermarket chains have insisted that outside auditors monitor suppliers, said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, a trade groups that represents restaurants, farmers and other companies in the produce supply chain.

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