(Dec. 6) While a recent E. coli outbreak was believed to be confined to certain East Coast Taco Bell restaurants, Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell Corp. said Dec. 6 that it has removed green onions at every one of its 5,800 restaurants nationally. The onions, the firm said, may be responsible for dozens of illnesses in three states.

Taco Bell issued a news release Dec. 5 saying that it was set to reopen eight restaurants in New Jersey and New York. The locations voluntarily closed for a day after an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that was thought to be linked to food the chain served between Nov. 17 and 28.

Nine people of a reported three dozen who fell ill from E. coli remained hospitalized in New Jersey and New York as of yesterday, according to published reports. Additional illnesses were then reported in Pennsylvania.

In a statement Tuesday, Taco Bell president Greg Creed said, “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.”

Though new cases of Taco Bell-related E. coli have been scarce, if not absent, since Nov. 29, the chain today said it has removed green onions at all of its restaurants “strictly as a precautionary measure.” Three samples of green onions came up positive for E. coli O157:H7 in a test Taco Bell requested from an independent laboratory, the company noted.

Taco Bell said state officials were conducting their own tests on its foods and officials would soon provide the firm with a final analysis of the ingredients tested.

“Based on the preliminary test results we received late last night, the company did not want to wait and took immediate action to safeguard public health,” Creed said of the decision to pull green onion supplies.

The Associated Press reported that New Jersey health officials said their investigation would probably focus on produce, not just meat, because some of the 23 people who ate at New Jersey Taco Bells and were infected with E. coli 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, and can be passed from person to person by contact.

According to an Online report Dec. 6 from WABC New York, all 11 East Coast Taco Bell restaurants involved in the E. coli outbreak used the same food distributor.

That distributor, reported HealthDay News on msn.com, is McLane Co. Inc. From a Burlington, N.J., facility, the firm serves a reported 1,100 restaurants or so, including Taco Bell and other fast-food chains.

McLane's web site notes that the company's grocery distribution business is based in Temple, Tex., while McLane's foodservice distribution operation is based in Carrollton, Tex.