THURSDAY, Dec. 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- As the number of probable cases of E. coli illness linked to Taco Bell restaurants in three northeastern states swelled to 99 on Wednesday, investigators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration joined the search into the source of the outbreak.
New data suggests the source may be green onions grown on a California farm and possibly distributed by at least one of the facilities involved in the recent tainted spinach scare.
A laboratory in Suffolk County, N.Y., Wednesday confirmed E. coli in three of four green onions taken from a previously unopened package at one of the Long Island Taco Bell outlets linked to the outbreak. This suggests that "it was already contaminated before it arrived" at the restaurant, county acting health commissioner Dr. David G. Graham told the New York Times.
Responding to similar, preliminary findings, Taco Bell on Wednesday ordered the removal of all green onions, also known as scallions, from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide, according to a company statement.
But in a statement released Wednesday night, the FDA said it "is obtaining samples of all non-meat items served in the [Taco Bell] restaurants that could carry the pathogen. These include cilantro, cheddar cheese, blended cheese, green onions, yellow onions, tomatoes and lettuce. The samples will be tested at FDA laboratories. The states involved are testing as well. At this time, the agency does not have data implicating or ruling out any of these items."
The investigation into the outbreak -- which includes cases in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania -- has widened to include a second food distribution center, located in Florence, N.J.
The facility is run by Ready Pac Produce, one of dozens of produce companies that recalled E.coli-tainted fresh spinach after an outbreak in September that killed 3 people and sickened more than 200 others across the United States and in Canada. The spinach implicated in that outbreak was eventually traced back to a California grower in the Salinas Valley.
Steve Dickstein, vice president for marketing at California-based Ready Pac, told the Times that his company bought the green onions from a California producer, Boskovich Farms. He said that all green onions processed at the plant are cut, washed and sanitized three times, then bagged, boxed and shipped to McLane Foodservice of Burlington, which then delivered the onions to Taco Bell.
"We have taken every prudent precaution and immediately stopped production and shipments of all green onions," Dickstein said in a statement released Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Boskovich Farms told the Times that the company is working closely with Taco Bell in the investigation.
As of late Wednesday, the number of reported cases in the ongoing E.coli outbreak included 41 on Long Island and several new cases in counties in upstate New York; three new cases in New Jersey, bringing the total there to 43; and three new cases in Pennsylvania, bringing that state's total to seven. Those numbers reflect state health authorities' assessment of "probable" cases; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently puts the number of confirmed cases at 43.
The Taco Bell restaurants implicated in the upstate New York cases get their produce from a distribution center in Albany, N.Y., not a Burlington, N.J., facility that has been linked to prior E. coli cases.
Nine people sickened in the ongoing outbreak remain hospitalized in New York and New Jersey, including an 11-year-old boy who developed kidney damage, according to news reports.
On Tuesday, Taco Bell representatives and state and federal health officials toured a 192,000-square-foot Burlington, N.J., food distribution center that supplied the Long Island and New Jersey restaurants associated with the outbreak. The center, run by Texas-based McLane Co., distributes food to more than 1,100 restaurants, including Taco Bell and other fast-food retailers.
Bart McKay, associate general counsel for McLane, told the Times Tuesday that the company had joined the investigation into the source of the E. coli outbreak at the request of Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands. "We're beginning with Burlington," he said.
Yum! Brands operates all the Taco Bell restaurants, some company-owned and some franchised, as well as other fast-food chains such as KFC and Long John Silver's.
Tim Jerzyk, a vice president at Yum! Brands, told the company's annual investor conference in New York City on Tuesday that the company has been "working around the clock" with health officials and "there is no immediate threat to consumers today."
E. coli is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat.
The new E. coli outbreak is the latest in a series of food-safety problems to hit the United States in recent months.
In addition to the spinach contamination, there was also an outbreak of salmonella in September that sickened 183 people in 21 states in the United States, as well as two people in Canada. The outbreak was traced to tomatoes in restaurants.
The food concerns this week don't stop with Taco Bell. Jamba Juice Co. of San Francisco warned consumers in the Southwest Tuesday that smoothies containing strawberries might have been contaminated with a potentially deadly bacterium.
The company said one of its suppliers -- Cleugh's Frozen Foods, also in the Salinas Valley -- found frozen strawberries at one of its facilities tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
The company added that it had not received any reports of illnesses.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about E. coli.