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E. coli believed found in city

Taco Bell closed all 15 of its Phila. sites pending testing. Green onions were a prime suspect

Dec 7, 2006 | Philadelphia Inquirer

All 15 Taco Bell restaurants in Philadelphia shut down yesterday afternoon, as the E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least four dozen people in New Jersey, New York and Montgomery County was believed to have been also found at a city Taco Bell.

The company voluntarily shut the city eateries pending inspections and food-sample testing by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, department spokesman Jeff Moran said.

Green onions shipped to Taco Bell restaurants through a Burlington City warehouse are the leading suspect in the search for the source of E. coli contamination, health officials said.

However, laboratory tests that would conclusively link the illnesses to the same E. coli strain will not be completed until early next week.

As a precaution, Taco Bell yesterday removed green onions from all of its 5,800 restaurants nationwide because preliminary tests showed three samples of green onions were contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli.

The company's nine restaurants in Montgomery County were closed yesterday for cleaning and replacement of food supplies, county Health Department spokeswoman Harriet Morton said.

She added that three of four residents with confirmed E. coli infections ate at the Gilbertsville Taco Bell in western Montgomery County.

The fourth Montgomery County resident was not interviewed until yesterday, when it became clear that he ate at a Taco Bell in Philadelphia near the suburban border.

In New Jersey, tests confirmed that E. coli infected the 11-year-old girl who became ill after eating at the Cherry Hill Mall Taco Bell on Nov. 22, Camden County health officials said. She was hospitalized for almost a week but went home Dec. 2.

Camden County is not closing its nine Taco Bells but is requiring cleaning, food replacement, and testing of food workers' stool samples for E. coli.

In North Jersey, 29 cases of E. coli infection have been confirmed and 13 probable cases are being tested, state Health Department spokesman Tom Slater said.

He said Taco Bell "has been very cooperative" and was considering additional precautionary measures recommended by the state. These would include cleaning and resupplying all Taco Bells in New Jersey that receive food from McLane Foodservice Inc. of Burlington, and also testing workers.

McLane is based in Texas. Its Burlington plant receives already-packaged produce, then delivers the packages to Taco Bell restaurants in the region.

Federal health investigators planned to test five produce items green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce from the Burlington plant, said Bart McKay, a lawyer for the company.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but a strain that lives in the intestines of healthy cattle, deer and sheep produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness in humans.

Bacteria in the animals' feces may come in contact with food in various ways. Meat can be contaminated during slaughter, milk can be tainted if the bacteria are on cows' udders or milking equipment, and produce can be exposed through water contaminated with animal waste.

If hand-washing is inadequate, E. coli can also be spread from an infected person's stool to another person who touches it say, while changing a sick child's diaper.

Infection often leads to abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and, occasionally, hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause life-threatening kidney failure.

News of the outbreak cooled appetites for south-of-the-border fast food.

During the busy noontime rush at the Cherry Hill Mall food court, holiday shoppers stood in long lines for pizza, sushi, Philly-style cheesesteaks but not soft tacos. Only three customers walked up over a 30-minute period.

One, Angel Hernandez of Pennsauken, had not heard the news about the possibly dangerous green onions. He was surprised but not deterred.

"I eat here all the time," Hernandez said, paying for his soft-taco combo. "I've never had a problem."

Joe McCarron of Coatesville heard about the outbreak but didn't know all nine Taco Bells in Montgomery County were closed.

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