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E. Coli Outbreak

Dec 12, 2006 | CNN American Morning

Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: The E. coli outbreak is now affecting seven states, and reportedly there are 400 cases in the Northeast. And in a new twist, the source of the Taco Bell contamination may not be green onions after all. It turns out that the test that implicated the scallions was wrong. White onions have now tested positive with a different E. coli strain that's not linked to any illnesses.

And overnight there was news that an E. coli outbreak at Taco John's restaurant, not linked to Taco Bell, may have spread to Minnesota. There are already cases reported in Iowa. Taco John's, as we mentioned, not affiliated with Taco Bell.

Let's get more this morning on these cases of E. coli.

Sanjay Gupta is in Atlanta this morning.

Good morning, Sanjay.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Give me a sense of why this is happening. Why do you think?

GUPTA: Well, it's interesting. When you look at these outbreaks overall, there's been almost 700 outbreaks over the last 15 years. So, I mean, these E. coli outbreaks, in and of themselves, are not that unusual.

They do appear to be of larger scale. And we have had a sort of doubling of produce-caused outbreaks over the last several years. Produce seems to be an increasingly large culprit here.

Is it because the farming industry has changed to some degree to have much broader reach in terms of which locations their produce actually reaches? We don't know. There's a lot of theories out there.

But this particular E. coli, this strain of E. coli, is a particularly troublesome one. It gets people quite sick. E. coli can exist very naturally in your body. Several different strains don't make you sick at all, but this one is a bad one Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Why, how could they say at first that the green onions, the scallions, were the source and then later say, well, not the source?

GUPTA: You know, when you look at these medical investigations, what happens is they literally get these people who are sick and they give them questionnaires. I've actually seen this process. It's an interesting process. And they try and find out over the last several days, what did you eat, where did you eat, and they start to find common things among all these people.

Taco Bell ended up being something that was common in all these people. They do a preliminary test on several different food groups. The green onions sort of rose to the top as possibly being infected.

These preliminary tests are not that specific. They're very sensitive, maybe overly sensitive. So it wasn't so much that the test was wrong, it's just that further testing or more definitive testing could not confirm that, in fact, the green onions had the E. coli in them.

The white onions, as you mentioned, did have E. coli, but it's a different strain of E. coli. It's not the one that's causing these illnesses. So that sort of confounds things even a little bit further.

But this is unfortunately sometimes how a medical investigation has to take place. It's a combination of the CDC, who's examining the sick people, then subsequently the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, goes and examines the food and tries to determine which specific food item in these Taco Bells seem to be the culprit here.

S. O'BRIEN: Theoretically, we may never know what exactly caused the outbreak at either the Taco Bells or the Taco John's?

GUPTA: That is possible. Oftentimes, as we saw with spinach and with lettuce, it just takes -- it takes a while. I think people are used to getting quick answers when it comes to these sorts of outbreaks.

You can just see here in the process, you can see that it takes some time. You have got to actually get the people to fill out these questionnaires, find out when they got sick, where they got sick, and then start examining all the e food items.

The fact that the farming industry has changed to some degree and you have distributors distributing to larger, you know, locations, more locations, in some ways makes it easier, because you have fewer culprits from which to choose. But it just takes a while.


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