WEDNESDAY, Dec. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Preliminary tests have linked the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants in three northeastern states to samples of green onions possibly contaminated with a harsh strain of the bacteria.
In response, Taco Bell on Wednesday ordered the removal of all green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide, according to a company statement.
Taco Bell officials said the tests aren't conclusive, but the company immediately notified health authorities and its restaurants, pending final test results of the onions.
"In an abundance of caution, we've decided to pull all green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E. coli outbreak," Greg Creed, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, said in the statement.
The outbreak widened on Tuesday with four new cases reported in Pennsylvania and two more in New Jersey, bringing the total number of reported cases to 65.
Officials at the Taco Bell restaurant chain -- where many victims had recently eaten -- quickly closed nine outlets in suburban Philadelphia as a precaution after the four new cases there were identified, The New York Times reported.
On Wednesday, the company reopened eight restaurants in New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y., that had been closed for a day after being linked to the outbreak, the Times reported. One outlet in South Plainfield, N.J., remains closed as workers sanitize all equipment.
Pennsylvania health officials are uncertain whether the new cases there are linked to those in New Jersey and New York. State Health Department spokesman Troy Thompson told the Associated Press that three of the people who were sickened with E. coli at the end of November had recently eaten at a Taco Bell. Two were hospitalized but then later released.
Nine people sickened in the ongoing outbreak remain hospitalized in New York and New Jersey, including an 11-year-old boy who remains in stable condition with kidney damage.
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 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 5,800 Taco Bell restaurants, some company-owned and some franchised, as well as other fast-food chains such as KFC and Long John Silver's.
There have been 25 confirmed cases of E. coli in New Jersey, and many more listed as probable infections, among people who ate at Taco Bell during the last two weeks of November. On Long Island, there have been at least 25 reported cases of infection.
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."
Medical officials in New Jersey and New York were teaming with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak.
In New Jersey, two children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can permanently damage the kidneys. An 11-year-old boy with kidney damage was moved from an intensive care unit to a pediatric ward at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, his condition upgraded from critical to stable on Tuesday. The condition of a 5-year-old girl was upgraded Monday. Five other people in New Jersey and four on Long Island remained hospitalized, according to published reports.
Since the E. coli bacterium is found in ground beef, the CDC recommends cooking all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. "Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160 F. Persons who cook ground beef without using a thermometer can decrease their risk of illness by not eating ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle," according to the CDC.
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 September, an outbreak of salmonella sickened 183 people in 21 states in the United States, as well as two people in Canada. Twenty-two people were hospitalized. Most of the cases were east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of Washington state. The outbreak was traced to tomatoes in restaurants.
Also in September, there was an outbreak of E. coli from contamination in fresh, packaged spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200 people in 26 states and one Canadian province. Health officials traced the spinach outbreak to a ranch in California's Salinas Valley, where it is believed that wild boar may have carried the E. coli bacteria from cattle feces to nearby spinach fields.
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 warning, issued in consultation with the FDA, applies to smoothies sold at Jamba Juice stores in Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, the AP reported.
The company said it had not received any reports of confirmed illnesses.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about E. coli.