Taco Bell Corp. launched a newspaper ad blitz and sent its president on a string of media interviews Tuesday to persuade customers that its food is safe — even as the cause of the E. coli outbreak linked to the fast-food chain remained a mystery.
In an open letter to customers published in USA Today, The New York Times and other newspapers, Taco Bell President Greg Creed said he would support the creation of a coalition of food suppliers, competitors, government and other experts to explore ways to safeguard the food supply chain and public health.
The executive underscored the safety mantra in media interviews, telling Associated Press Television that he had assured his daughter, a college freshman in New York, and her friends that Taco Bell food is safe.
“I can assure you, I would not tell my daughter that unless I absolutely believed it,” Creed said.
Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said the safety issue was not limited to the Mexican-style food chain.
“Based on the information we have today ... we believe that this issue is not isolated to Taco Bell and that there is more need to ensure a safe food supply from the farm to the table,” he said.
Neither Creed nor Poetsch provided further detail about how an industry safety coalition might work. Representatives of other fast food chains did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, a trade groups that represents restaurants, farmers and other companies in the produce supply chain, said such an industry coalition already exists.
The group was formed two years ago and has been particularly active since September, when three people died and more than 200 became ill because of a spinach-related E. coli outbreak.
“The largest restaurant and supermarket chains have been active in this process,” Silbermann said. “As far as I’m aware, Taco Bell has not been involved.”
Irvine-based Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc., ran ads in a number of papers in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, where an outbreak of the bacteria has sickened 67 people who ate at the chain’s restaurants.
The chain’s effort to reassure customers was complicated Monday, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it could not confirm that scallions were the cause of the problem, as previously suspected, and that it was not ruling out any food as a possible culprit.
A sample of white onions taken from a Taco Bell restaurant in New York was found to be positive for a strain of the bacteria that hasn’t been linked to any cases of illnesses in the U.S. within 30 days, the FDA said.
Poetsch said the company believes its food is safe because green onions were removed from use last week and restaurants have been sanitized. No additional cases of Taco Bell patrons falling ill with E. coli have been reported since Dec. 2, according to the FDA.
Some fans of the chain weren’t concerned about getting sick.
“Even if they don’t know what caused the outbreak, Taco Bell restaurants are probably safer now than before because of all the scrutiny they’ve received,” said Bruce Brandywine, 41, who was one of eight people in line at lunchtime at the Taco Bell in DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y.
Brandywine, a plumber, said he eats at Taco Bell about once a month. He planned to keep eating there, unless another episode of E. coli sickness is reported.
Separately, nearly three dozen people were sickened in recent days with symptoms consistent with E. coli infection after eating at a Taco John’s restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Authorities are also investigating reports that several other people became ill after eating at one of the chain’s restaurants in Albert Lea, Minn.
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 testing 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, Silbermann said.
Jim Lugg, food safety chief at Salinas-based produce processor and distributor Fresh Express Inc., said the company has standards in place that cover the entire supply chain.
Jim Prevor, who edits Produce Business magazine and maintains a Web log as The Perishable Pundit, said it’s “almost certainly true” that Taco Bell is safe again because any perishable food that might have been contaminated weeks ago would have been tossed out by now.