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Nassau confirms 4 more cases of E. coli

Dec 6, 2006 | Newsday

Two more Taco Bell restaurants were closed,one in New Hyde Park and one in Seaford, for cleaning on Wednesday amid an outbreak of E. coli bacteria that may have sickened more than three dozen people in Nassau and Suffolk counties and dozens elsewhere around the country.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi said at a late-afternoon press conference that officials have confirmed four E. Coli cases and were investigating an additional 25 cases of people showing symptoms. In Suffolk County, officials reported one confirmed case on Wednesday, bringing its total to 12.

Three patients in Nassau County remained hospitalized; at least one remained hospitalized in Suffolk.

In response to the outbreak, Taco Bell Corp. on Wednesday announced it has removed green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide.

The Irvine, Calif.-based company said that an independent lab found three samples of green onions that appeared to have a harsh strain of the bacteria.

"In an abundance of caution, we've decided to pull all green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E. coli outbreak," Greg Creed, Taco Bell president, said in a statement.

Taco Bell said that the tests are not conclusive, but that it immediately notified health authorities and its restaurants while it awaits a final analysis.

On Tuesday, a federal surveillance system reported suspected new cases in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. While few details were available about the situation in Connecticut, Pennsylvania health officials said they were investigating four cases of E. coli in suburban Philadelphia; three of the four people who fell ill in late November said they had eaten at a Taco Bell, a spokesman said.

All eight Long Island Taco Bells that had closed Monday four in Nassau and four in Suffolk reopened Tuesday.

Taco Bell officials said none of their restaurants in New York City were affected by the outbreak of the potentially fatal infection even though they are served by the same distribution center that delivers food to restaurants in Nassau, Suffolk and New Jersey, where health authorities believe at least 36 people who fell ill ate recently.

That led Taco Bell officials to question whether their stores were the actual source of the contamination.

"We really don't know if it's Taco Bell," said Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for the Irvine, Calif.-based corporation, which has nearly 5,800 stores nationwide that attract 35 million customers a week. "We want to find out the root cause of this thing."

Health officials in Nassau and Suffolk said most of the victims had eaten at one of eight Taco Bells between Nov. 19 and 25, and they assumed the restaurant chain was the source.

They said they were allowing the reopenings because no cases have emerged of people who ate at the restaurants after Nov. 25, and they believe the danger has passed. All the stores were shut down Monday, completely cleaned and re-sanitized, while all existing food was thrown out.

"We're taking all the necessary precautions to ensure our customers that our food is safe to eat," Poetsch said. The chain has 204 stores in New York State, 86 in New Jersey and another 200 or so in Pennsylvania and Delaware that are served by the same distribution center.

The food distributor, Texas-based McLane Co., said representatives from Taco Bell along with state and federal health officials toured its distribution center in Burlington, N.J., that supplied the stores involved. Bart McKay, a lawyer for the company, said the inspection Tuesday was aimed at trying to determine the source of the contaminated food and whether it came from Taco Bell restaurants.

County officials in Suffolk and Nassau contacted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta Tuesday to formally request that the Food and Drug Administration launch an investigation to determine the source of the contamination. That is likely to take a least a week.

Poetsch said Taco Bell tested some food at its store in Plainview, N.J., last week to ensure there was no further contamination of new deliveries, and was weighing similar steps at the restaurants on Long Island but had not yet taken them.

Nassau County officials said they had detected seven new cases of diarrhea associated with eating at a Taco Bell, in addition to three cases disclosed Monday. The restaurants, which were not closed, are located at 3950 Sunrise Hwy. in Seaford and 1650 Jericho Tpke. in New Hyde Park.

Of the 10 total reported cases in Nassau, one is a confirmed case of E. coli 0157, one is strongly suspected and the rest are under investigation. Nassau officials have also detected two other separate cases of E. coli 0157 that appear not to be related to Taco Bell. In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Levy said nine of the 11 people sickened there have been released from the hospital, while two adults, including one elderly person, remain hospitalized in serious condition.

Levy and acting County Health Commissioner David Graham said the county health department received a call from an 11-year-old boy's mother at 3:30 p.m. Friday; she reported that she thought he was sickened by a pet gecko. By 4:30 p.m. a health inspector was at the Taco Bell in Riverhead where the boy had eaten. More reported cases came in during the weekend, and by 11 p.m. Sunday authorities in Suffolk had confirmed a pattern.

By late Monday, the Long Island Taco Bells linked to the outbreak voluntarily closed down. They are located in Patchogue, Port Jefferson, Riverhead, Deer Park, Hempstead, East Meadow, Hicksville and Garden City.

Suffolk officials said they acted as quickly as possible to alert the public. It took until late Monday for the stores to close because Suffolk officials first had to talk to those who reported illnesses and then to Taco Bell officials and learn how the food distribution system worked.

Levy said health officials believed the contamination came from "pre-existing" food delivered to the restaurants and did not come from preparation at the Taco Bells themselves.

"I don't think they caused E. coli; they were the end user," said Dr. Patricia Dillon, director of communicable diseases at Suffolk County Department of Health. "I think they received it bad."


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