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New leaf turned in inquiry

Government zeroes in on lettuce, not onions, as possible culprit in outbreak

Dec 14, 2006 | Newsday

Lettuce grown in the West was implicated yesterday as the food that sickened dozens of people in five states with a dangerous bacterial strain that infiltrated numerous menu items served at Taco Bell outlets.

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using a mathematical probability that roughly amounts to a process of elimination, statistically pointed to shredded lettuce that garnishes much of the fare served at the chain.

In a hastily arranged news briefing late yesterday, Greg Creed, Taco Bell's president, said his restaurants will continue to serve lettuce but will abide by its embargo on green onions, even though they were declared free of all contamination by federal health authorities.

"At this point, we do not intend to reintroduce green onions into Taco Bell," Creed said.

But with lettuce now in the hot seat and still on the menu Creed said he's convinced it poses no dangers to the chain's consumers.

"We have changed our lettuce supplier," Creed said during a national telebriefing yesterday. "And yes, we do buy it already shredded from a supplier. The lettuce is rinsed, cleaned and packed at the supplier."

Taco Bell announced earlier this week that it had switched suppliers for its fresh produce. Creed yesterday would not reveal the name of the former supplier, which could have shipped lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a deadly strain linked to illnesses in 71 people in five states, including New York.

On Long Island, eight Taco Bells were closed last week, then reopened after food was destroyed and the facilities were cleaned. There have been 12 confirmed cases, and 164 probable cases, in Suffolk. In Nassau, there are three laboratory-confirmed cases and 85 under investigation.

Indeed, the identity of the supplier is being so closely guarded that neither health officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the CDC would reveal the company's name.

Creed would only say this yesterday about the supplier's whereabouts: "In a very general sense, I would say the West."

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the name of the supplier is confidential because an investigation is under way. The FDA, he said, is conducting a traceback probe, a complex series of studies that ultimately leads back to the field where the suspect lettuce was grown.

Keeping the supplier's name secret, however, is a sharp departure from the openness with which federal health officials conducted the recent investigation of E. coli contamination of spinach.

Lettuce and spinach grown in California's Central Valley have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 20 times in the past decade. Outbreaks linked to leafy greens from the region have triggered a spate of federal probes and a major initiative to ensure safe growing practices.

Acheson yesterday said the "topography" of lettuce lends itself to contamination if a tainting source is within reach of a growing lettuce crop.

Dr. Christopher Braden, the medical epidemiologist at the CDC who is leading that agency's end of the probe, said that after questioning people who ate at Taco Bell, scientists had limited their search to three foods: lettuce, cheddar cheese and ground beef.

He said health officials interviewed people who were sickened and compared their responses to people who ate at the chain and did not get sick.

"We've looked at a large number of ingredients and none of the other ingredients are showing an association, and that includes the question of the onions," Braden said.

Creed said federal health officials ruled out cheddar cheese and ground beef because both are heat-treated. The cheese, he said, is pasteurized, and the beef is precooked before it arrives at Taco Bell restaurants.


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