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E coli scare closes Taco Bells in Montco

Fast-food chain implicated in tri-state E. coli outbreak that has sickened dozens

Dec 6, 2006 | www.mcall.com

An E. coli outbreak that sickened dozens in New York and New Jersey apparently has spread to Pennsylvania, where four food-poisoning cases in Montgomery County prompted health officials to investigate, and Taco Bell to close all of its restaurants in the county Tuesday.

The Mexican fast-food chain, which has been implicated in the outbreak in New York and New Jersey, voluntarily closed its nine Montgomery County locations after at least three people who ate at the company's Gilbertsville area eatery became ill, according to Harriet Morton, a spokeswoman for the county's Health Department.

The department still hasn't determined if the restaurant, on E. Philadelphia Avenue in Douglass Township near the Berks County border, was the source of the outbreak and hasn't identified a specific food source that caused the illnesses. Investigators still are trying to determine if the cases in all three states are linked.

Four Montgomery County residents, all males between the ages of 11 and 20, were sickened in late November by the E. coli bacteria, Morton said. Two were hospitalized but later released, Morton said, adding that none of the four was seriously ill.

In New York and central New Jersey, where about two dozen people were sickened, nine people remained hospitalized Tuesday, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage.

The illnesses followed at least three U.S. deaths in October stemming from an E. coli outbreak tied to California spinach.

Taco Bell, which says it serves 35 million customers weekly at 5,800 restaurants, didn't immediately comment on the Montgomery County cases, but released a statement saying there has been no confirmation that its restaurants were the source of the outbreak in New York and New Jersey.

The company says it threw out all food at the restaurants that were closed and ''completely cleaned and sanitized the restaurants, utensils and cooking equipment.''

Greg Creed, Taco Bell's president, said the company is working closely with health officials to ''determine the root cause of this.'' There was no word on how long the Montgomery County restaurants might be closed.

Texas-based McLane Co., which distributes food to all Taco Bells in New Jersey and the New York City area, said Taco Bell representatives, along with state and federal inspectors, have toured its Burlington, N.J., distribution center.

News that Taco Bell was closing down for the day came as a disappointment to customers visiting the Montgomery Township and Lansdale locations Tuesday night.

Motorists who were lined up to order at the drive-through window at the Montgomery Township restaurant on Route 309 waited in line for about five minutes before realizing it was closed.

''It's scary,'' said Katie O'Neill of Ottsville, who was waiting in line for three tacos.

Chris Benner of Perkasie was looking forward to getting a half-dozen soft tacos and a Burrito Supreme when he visited the Taco Bell on Broad Street in Lansdale. His wife, Monica, said she had heard about the E. coli outbreak, but Chris said, ''I totally forgot about it.''

Although the lights were on inside the Lansdale restaurant, a sign at the entrance told visitors: ''We are temporarily closed. We are sorry for any inconvenience.''

Rich Vetter, manager at the nearby Lansdale Family Restaurant, said the joint Taco Bell-Long John Silver's closed about 4 p.m.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.

It is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most infections are associated with undercooked meat. The state Department of Health says most healthy people recover from the illness within a week.

Morton said county health officials were notified of the illnesses by hospitals or physicians' offices. She said the investigation is ''in the beginning phases,'' and ''it might be a while'' before results of tests done on the four patients, whose names were not released, are known.

In New Jersey, officials said their investigation probably would focus on produce, not meat, because some of the people who ate at New Jersey Taco Bells and were infected with E. coli are vegetarians.

The outbreak has underscored the risk of widespread outbreaks of food poisoning at fast-food chains.

''Fast-food restaurants don't purchase ingredients down at the local farmers market. They purchase food nationally, process it nationally and ship it


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