Taco Bell Removes Green Onions as Health Officials Seek Clues

Taco Bell has voluntarily removed green onions from all 5,800 of its U.S. restaurants after three samples were found to be "presumptive positive" for E. coli bacteria.

Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, calls the results "preliminary and not yet conclusive." "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," said Greg Creed, Taco Bell President.

"We have no indication what the source is. We're looking into all possibilities," company spokesman Rob Poetsch said.

Health officials have not yet been able to pinpoint the source of the bacteria that has sickened at least three dozen people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nine people remained hospitalized in New York and New Jersey, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage.

As Taco Bell reopened Long Island restaurants implicated in an E. coli outbreak, the fast food chain closed nine outlets in suburban Philadelphia after health officials reported an E. coli outbreak that sickened four people there.

Taco Bell said Tuesday it had sanitized the Long Island restaurants and at least five had reopened by Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday, Taco Bell representatives and state and federal health inspectors visited a food distribution center in Burlington, N.J., that supplied the Long Island and New Jersey restaurants patronized by people who were sickened.

"It involves tracking your way back and trying to see if by process of elimination you can determine the root cause," said Bart McKay, a lawyer for the distributor, Texas-based McLane.

Focus on Produce

New Jersey health officials said their investigation would probably focus on produce, not just meat, because some of the 23 E. coli victims who ate at New Jersey Taco Bells were vegetarians.

E. coli is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach. The germs can be passed from person to person if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.

New Jersey's health commissioner has said the most recent case of E. coli was reported Nov. 29, so the danger of infection might have passed.

Two of the New Jersey restaurants implicated were inspected and remained open.
The third, in South Plainfield, remained closed Tuesday evening.Pennsylvania officials were working to determine if the outbreak there was linked to the New York and New Jersey cases. Three of those who fell ill at the end of November had eaten at a Taco Bell, state Health Department spokesman Troy Thompson said. Two were hospitalized and released.

Nine Close in Pennsylvania

The nine Taco Bell restaurants located in suburban Philadelphia were voluntarily closing as a precaution, the Montgomery County health department said.

In New York, Irene Abbad stopped at a Taco Bell on Long Island on Tuesday, but she was afraid to eat the food and ordered only a soft drink.

After hearing about the outbreak, she called her son, who she said is a frequent Taco Bell customer. "I said, `Don't eat Taco Bell for a while.'"

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.

Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill from an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged spinach grown in California.