(Dec. 14) The bull’s eye in the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak has shifted from green onions to lettuce.

Because multiple Taco Bell restaurants were involved over the same period of time during the recent E. coli outbreak that has sickened 71 persons and hospitalized 53 as of Dec. 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a Dec. 13 release that the contamination of lettuce, now the suspected source rather than green onions, “...likely occurred before reaching the restaurants.”

“By comparing foods consumed by ill and well persons, investigators can show statistical links between illness and consumption of particular food ingredients,” the CDC release stated. “Public health investigators have identified a few ingredients that were consumed more often by ill persons than well persons and were statistically linked with illness: lettuce, cheddar cheese and ground beef.”

Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, Calif., confirmed in a Dec. 13 release that it had been notified by the Food and Drug Administration and CDC that lettuce appeared to be the most probable source of the E. coli outbreak in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Lettuce is served in about 70% of all Taco Bell menu items, which increases the probability it is the source according to the CDC.

“We would expect the vast majority of those who ate at Taco Bell to have consumed lettuce, so we can understand how the CDC has concluded their statistical probability analysis,” said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell Corp., in the release. “In addition, we’ve been informed by the CDC and FDA that a handful of the people who became ill did not eat at Taco Bell.”

Creed said food safety is Taco Bell’s No.1 priority, and that the company took immediate actions to safeguard the public’s health from the moment it learned of an E. coli outbreak associated with its restaurants.

“Our team of experts, including Dr. Mike Doyle, a world renowned food safety expert who is consulting with us, has been working around the clock with the CDC, FDA and state and local health authorities since the date of the first onset to try to pinpoint the source of this outbreak,” Creed said in the release.

Taco Bell stated in the release that it had hired Certified Laboratories, an independent scientific laboratory in Plainview, New York, which conducted tests on more than 300 samples of all the ingredients served in Taco Bell restaurants. No ingredient, including lettuce and cheese, tested positive for the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria.

“All cheese used by Taco Bell is pasteurized, and because of this, it is highly unlikely to be the source of the illness, according to the CDC,” the Taco Bell release stated.

The lettuce supplied to Taco Bell restaurants implicated in the outbreak was grown by various farmers and shipped to the company’s former produce supplier, the release stated.

Taco Bell purchases less than 20% of the lettuce produced by the supplier. The remaining 80% of the lettuce is sold to others throughout the region.

Steve Dickstein, vice president of marketing for Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac, said Dec. 14 that the company did supply both the green onions and lettuce that have alternately been implicated as possible, though still unverified, sources of contamination by health officials.

“Green onions was a rush to judgment, and this appears to be another rush to judgment,” Dickstein said. “That runs the risk of impacting consumer confidence around overall food safety. That doesn’t give the consumer what they want, which is a real answer, and it doesn’t help anybody in moving this thing forward.”

Taco Bell switched produce suppliers for the region to Taylor Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif., on Dec. 9 as a “precautionary measure.”

“All the lettuce sold in these restaurants today is from a different source, and anything sold prior to December 3, the last date of illness related to Taco Bell, has long been sold or discarded,” the Taco Bell release said.

“They switched it to Taylor Farms, which processes it, but the reality is they (Taylor Farms) get their materials from the same (growing areas),” Dickstein said. “The key point we want to make is that the root cause (for the outbreak) has not been determined, so lettuce has not been implicated.”

Dickstein said Taco Bell informed Ready Pac that the move to Taylor Farms was temporary, but would not comment on when Ready Pac might again supply product to the restaurant chain.

“Yum (Brands) and Taco Bell are first class organizations, and we continue to support whatever moves that they need to make in order to be able to help the investigators find out the root cause,” he said.

Jim Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said the industry suffers with each of these food safety stories.
“Once the question has been asked, you can un-ring the bell,” Bogart said.

He compared the constant barrage of erroneous news stories about various commodities being linked to E. coli to the courtroom tactic of asking a question even though the attorney knows there will be an objection, and the judge will tell the jury to disregard it.

“It’s cumulative and very harmful,” he said. “It’s just one story after another. First, it’s spinach, then green onions, which have been cleared. Now it’s on to ‘well, we think it might be the chopped lettuce.’ I suppose FDA has an obligation to keep the public informed, but what I’m having difficulty comprehending is, the outbreak is over, nobody else is getting sick, there is no further risk, there is no tainted product in the marketplace. Nevertheless they want everyone to know they’re looking at chopped lettuce. I don’t understand the purpose that is served by calling a press conference to announce that.”