An E. coli outbreak that has sickened more than 60 people in the Northeast is prompting concern among West Coast farmers after officials announced that scallions suspected as carriers of the bacteria came from a Southern California farm.
The green onion link to the infections — mostly of customers at Taco Bell restaurants in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas — hasn’t been confirmed. But some experts say the questions already have cast a shadow on an industry still recovering from a similar bacterial outbreak traced to locally grown spinach.
“Even if it turns out that the implication to green onions doesn’t hold up, a lot of damage is done,” said Trevor Suslow, a vegetable specialist at the University of California, Davis. “It certainly heightens concern and undermines confidence among consumers and buyers about the safety of products coming from the state.”
“Illnesses are still occurring, and we consider the outbreak to be ongoing,” said Dr. Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said it expected the number of cases to grow. As of Friday afternoon, the agency had counted 62 confirmed cases, most of them in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Taco Bell restaurants in eight Northeastern states received scallions that may be linked to the outbreak, according to McLane Co., which distributes the fast-food chain’s vegetables.
McLane lawyer Bart McKay said Thursday that two of the company’s facilities — one in New Jersey and one in New York — distributed the scallions to 450 Taco Bells in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Ready Pac Produce has said its processing center in Florence, N.J., handled the vegetables that were shipped from McLane’s distribution centers.
A spokesman for Irwindale-based Ready Pac, one of the nation’s leading produce packers, said it had cleared that plant of all raw and processed green onions.
Tracking the source
The suspect scallions were grown by Boskovich Farms Inc. of Oxnard, said Steve Dickstein, marketing vice president for Ready Pac.
On Friday, a Pennsylvania man who became ill from E. coli after eating food from a Taco Bell sued the fast-food chain’s owner, Yum Brands Inc., and Boskovich Farms in federal court in Philadelphia.
Stephen Minnis said he had to be hospitalized after eating food from a Taco Bell on Nov. 26. The lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages, claiming the tainted food was not fit for human consumption and that the companies were negligent and violated food-safety regulations.
Will Bortz, a Taco Bell spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“We’re really focused on the investigation right now,” Bortz said. “We’re trying to find the root cause of the illness and identify the product that caused this.”
Testing by an independent lab found three samples of green onions that appeared to have a harsh strain of E. coli.
But FDA spokesman Michael L. Herndon cautioned: “All we have been given is presumptive evidence only from a contract lab whose results we can’t confirm.”
Taco Bell, an Irvine-based unit of Yum Brands Inc., told customers that in addition to getting rid of its green onions from all 5,800 of its restaurants, it sanitized the affected restaurants and set up a toll-free number for people to call with concerns.
Second scare for Ready Pac
This is the second E. coli scare to hit Ready Pac in the past four months. In September, spinach with the Ready Pac label was among dozens of brands pulled from the shelves when federal authorities traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to a Natural Selections LLC processing plant that bags its spinach.
Preliminary tests showed the E. coli strain in the green onions was different from that in the spinach, California health officials said. Three people died and more than 200 fell ill from eating fresh spinach traced to California’s Salinas Valley.
E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the CDC, the strain of E. coli that caused the infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle. It can be spread if people don’t take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.