TUESDAY, Dec. 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Taco Bell said it expects to reopen its restaurants Tuesday in New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y., after an outbreak of E. coli contamination sickened at least 39 people.
"We expect all Taco Bell restaurants to be back in operation today," Tim Jerzyk, a vice president at Yum Brands Inc., the owner of Taco Bell, told the company's annual investor conference in New York City.
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, the Associated Press reported.
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.
Jerzyk said 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.
"As a precautionary measure, Taco Bell has thrown out all existing food and is bringing in new food. In addition, the company has completely cleaned and re-sanitized the restaurants, utensils and all cooking equipment," Taco Bell said in a prepared statement.
A total of nine restaurants -- eight on Long Island and one in central New Jersey -- were affected, company officials said.
In New Jersey, two children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can permanently damage the kidneys. An 11-year-old boy with kidney damage was in critical condition at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. 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.
"We are very concerned for those who became ill, and our thoughts are with them as we continue to work closely with health officials as they try to determine the root cause of this," Taco Bell president Greg Creed said in a prepared statement. "While the authorities do not know the source of this contamination, they have said there haven't been any new cases since Nov. 29, so they are confident that it is most likely no longer a threat."
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 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can tell you more about E. coli.