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E. Coli spreads as 9 more Taco Bells close

4 people sickened in suburban Philadelphia; source of bacteria unknown

Dec 6, 2006 | MSNBC As Taco Bell reopened Long Island restaurants implicated in an E. coli outbreak, the fast food chain closed nine outlets in suburban Philadelphia after health officials reported an E. coli outbreak that sickened four people there.

Health officials have not yet been able to pinpoint the source of the bacteria that has sickened at least three dozen people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nine people remained hospitalized in New York and New Jersey, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage.

On Tuesday, Taco Bell representatives and state and federal health inspectors visited a food distribution center in Burlington, N.J., that supplied the Long Island and New Jersey restaurants patronized by people who were sickened.

“It involves tracking your way back and trying to see if by process of elimination you can determine the root cause,” said Bart McKay, a lawyer for the distributor, Texas-based McLane Co.

New Jersey health officials said their investigation would probably focus on produce, not just meat, because some of the 23 E. coli victims who ate at New Jersey Taco Bells 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. The germs can be passed from person to person if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.

New Jersey’s health commissioner has said the most recent case of E. coli was reported Nov. 29, so the danger of infection might have passed.

Two of the New Jersey restaurants implicated were inspected and remained open. The third, in South Plainfield, remained closed Tuesday evening.

Taco Bell Corp., a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., said Tuesday it had sanitized the Long Island restaurants and at least five had reopened by Tuesday evening.

“We have no indication what the source is. We’re looking into all possibilities,” company spokesman Rob Poetsch said.

Pennsylvania officials were working to determine if the outbreak there was linked to the New York and New Jersey cases. Three of those who fell ill at the end of November had eaten at a Taco Bell, state Health Department spokesman Troy Thompson said. Two were hospitalized and released.

The nine Taco Bell restaurants located in suburban Philadelphia were voluntarily closing as a precaution, the Montgomery County health department said.

In New York, Irene Abbad stopped at a Taco Bell on Long Island on Tuesday, but she was afraid to eat the food and ordered only a soft drink.

After hearing about the outbreak, she called her son, who she said is a frequent Taco Bell customer. “I said, ‘Don’t eat Taco Bell for a while.”’

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.

Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill from an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged spinach grown in California.

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