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Taco Bell acts after E. coli outbreak

/ Source: NBC, and news services

All the Taco Bell restaurants in Philadelphia were voluntarily closed on Wednesday after an E. coli outbreak reported in three states was linked to a city restaurant.

The Mexican-style fast-food chain removed green onions from all 5,800 of its restaurants across the country Wednesday after tests indicated that they could be to blame for an outbreak of E. coli that has sickened at least five dozen people in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia interim health commissioner Carmen I. Paris said in a statement, "I have contacted company officials and asked that they voluntarily close all 15 of their establishments in Philadelphia until they are given approval by the health department."

Taco Bell said preliminary testing by an independent lab found three samples of green onions that appeared to have a dangerous strain of the bacterium.

Health officials described it as the largest E. coli outbreak to hit the Northeast in many years. Overall, at least 65 people are now known to have been infected, nine of whom remained in hospitals, including an 11-year-old boy who was in stable condition with kidney damage.

The mystery arose Thursday, when a hospital in Middlesex County, N.J., notified the state Health Department of a confirmed case of E. coli. More incidents were reported on Long Island in New York, and the reports spread Tuesday to Pennsylvania, where state health officials told NBC News that they had confirmed four patients, three of whom had eaten at separate Taco Bells in Montgomery County.

“I started getting really sick,” said Christina Swindell, a Taco Bell customer in New Jersey. “I started to feel nauseous and a lot of diarrhea.”

In New York, Irene Abbad stopped at a Taco Bell on Long Island on Tuesday, but she was afraid to eat the food and ordered only a soft drink. After hearing about the outbreak, she called her son, who she said was a frequent Taco Bell customer. “I said, ‘Don’t eat Taco Bell for a while.’”

Danger of new infections probably over

Health officials said the number of reported cases could still rise, but only as more previously infected people stepped forward, NBC News’ Michelle Franzen reported from New York. The danger of new infections is likely to have passed, they said.

But Abby Greenberg, disease control director of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Health Department, said Wednesday that people who may have eaten at Taco Bells in the Northeast should still be alert to symptoms and seek treatment quickly if they appear.

“The important public health message is anyone who is suffering from severe diarrhea, particularly bloody diarrhea typical of the severe E. coli 157 infection, to contact their physician immediately,” she said.

Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc. based in Irvine, Calif., reopened restaurants linked to the outbreak on Long Island after the outlets were sanitized. And two of three New Jersey Taco Bells that were implicated had also reopened, with authorities awaiting test results on customers from the third location.

Taco Bell said Tuesday that all the ingredients prepared at the 1,100 Taco Bells in the Northeast came from its distribution center in southern New Jersey, which is operated by McLane Food Service of Carrollton, Tex. McLane said federal investigators planned to test green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce from the warehouse.

Where did it come from?

Tainted green onions from Mexico were blamed for an outbreak of hepatitis A in western Pennsylvania in 2003 that was traced to a Mexican restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 others were sickened after eating the green onions at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant.

California is the nation’s largest supplier of green onions. But by December, as winter sets in, the vegetable is often imported from Mexico.

E. coli is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables like spinach. The germs can be spread by people if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis and death.

Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 others fell ill in an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged, fresh spinach grown in California.

Larry Miller, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said the outbreak could affect Taco Bell sales in the short term. “It will take time for consumers to get confidence back, but it will come back,” he said.’s Alex Johnson, NBC News’ Michelle Franzen and Lisa Daniels and The Associated Press contributed to this report.