The Southern California farm that grew the green onions that were first linked to and then cleared in last year's E. coli outbreak has filed a libel lawsuit against Taco Bell.
Boskovich Farms, filed the lawsuit last week in Orange County Superior Court, alleging the Yum! Brands unit continued to link its green onions to the December outbreak that sickened more than 70 people in the Northeast despite knowing the produce was not contaminated.
"Taco Bell engaged in an irresponsible and intentional crusade to save its own brand at the expense of an innocent supplier," Thomas Girardi, an attorney for Oxnard-based Boskovich Farms, told the Los Angeles Times.
The false connection between the farm and the fast food chain's E. coli problem has cost Boskovich "millions of dollars of business," Girardi said. He declined to specify the loss. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
Taco Bell, which is based in Irvine, said in a statement Wednesday that it acted responsibly and was only trying to keep the public informed of developments.
"We believed green onions may have been the source based on the presumptive positive testing, so we immediately removed them from our products to put public safety first," the statement said. "We later learned they were not the source of the E. coli outbreak."
The incident cost Taco Bell $20 million in operating profit. The company sells more than $6 billion annually at its 5,800 U.S. restaurants.
The lawsuit alleges Taco Bell officials probably knew by Dec. 9 and certainly by Dec. 11 that tests for E. coli in the green onions were negative.
The company and FDA officials said Dec. 11 that the green onions were not the source of the disease, and Taco Bell posted a press release Dec. 13 on its Web site that said lettuce appeared to be the most probable source of the outbreak, according to the suit.
On Dec. 13, however, Taco Bell President Greg Creed published an open letter in national newspapers stating that "all Taco Bell ingredients have come back negative for E. coli ... with the possible exception of green onions, which we removed from all 5,800 restaurants on December 6," the lawsuit said.
Creed also said Taco Bell would no longer include green onions as a food ingredient. The lawsuit noted that lettuce remains in about 70% of Taco Bell's food selections.
Boskovich Farms had about 55 acres of green onions when the outbreak occurred. Now, it has no plans to replant the green onions in those fields as a result of the product's declining sales since the outbreak.