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Taco Bell can expect diners back, experts say

An E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell restaurants left the fast-food chain with a major damage-control challenge Thursday: How can it reassure customers its food is safe even as the suspected cause of the outbreak remained unconfirmed?
/ Source: The Associated Press

An E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell restaurants has left the fast-food chain with a major damage-control challenge: How can it reassure customers its food is safe even as the suspected cause of the outbreak remained unconfirmed?

The outbreak has left more than 60 people sick in five Northeast states. Taco Bell ordered the removal of green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide after testing by an independent lab suggested the bacteria may have come from scallions.

Analysts said the Mexican-style restaurant chain is likely to see sales decline in the short term.

“You’ve got a crisis of confidence right now,” said Michael Sitrick, a crisis-management expert. “What they need to do to bring people back in the stores is to assure them that what happened in the past cannot happen in the future.”

Taco Bell, an Irvine, Calif., unit of Yum Brands Inc., told customers that in addition to getting rid of all its green onions, it sanitized the affected restaurants and set up a toll-free number for people to call with concerns.

Paul Argenti, a business professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said Taco Bell appeared to be doing a good job handling the problem.

“When you’re in the middle of it, give people any information that you know, as much as possible,” he said. “Try to be honest and open and transparent.”

Taco Bell is not the only restaurant chain suffering from an outbreak of foodborne illness.

Near three dozen people fell ill with symptoms consistent with infection by the E. coli bacteria after eating at a Taco John’s restaurant in Iowa.

Taco John’s is based in Cheyenne, Wyo., and has no connection to Taco Bell.

Argenti said he does not believe Tac Bell needs a television ad campaign to reassure customers. Taco Bell has a loyal customer base that “will be looking for a reason to go back,” he said. “Within six months, everything rights itself.”

Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said the chain is preoccupied with the investigation. He would not say if it plans a major publicity effort. The restaurant is working as closely as possible with authorities “to find the root cause of this,” he said.

Some loyal customers seemed unconcerned about the outbreak.

“I don’t care. I’ve been eating at Taco Bell my whole life,” said Josh Dowiak, 20, of Philadelphia, as devoured a meal dripping with cheese behind a Taco Bell in Glassboro, N.J.

But his co-worker, a fellow college student, expressed less gusto for his lunch after learning about the outbreak. “I didn’t know about it. Otherwise I don’t know if we would have come here,” said Dale Gadnorsa, 23, also of Philadelphia.

The company suggests that customers who are worried about the outbreak call its hot line, 1-800-TACO-BELL.

Barry Sawyer, an operator who answered the phone at the Miami-based call center last week, said he had handled 25 calls so far. Most callers were not ill; they just wanted to understand the situation.

“The majority are calling in and asking 'What’s going on?”’ Sawyer said. “I don’t think I’ve received any irate calls about it.”

Dr. Douglas Archer, associate dean for research at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, said throwing out more than the scallions would be premature.

“If nothing’s pointing to anything else, where would you stop if you started down that path?” he said. “Taco Bell has been around for a long, long time, and they’ve served billions and billions safely.”

Ready Pac Produce of Irwindale, Calif. — which washed, chopped and packed the green onions suspected in the outbreak — said it bought its scallions from a grower in Oxnard, Calif., about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

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 before federal authorities traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to another California processing plant that bags spinach.