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Scallions in E. coli case from Calif.

Dec 7, 2006 | AP

The scallions suspected in the E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell came from a Southern California grower, an official with the company that washed, chopped and packed them for the restaurant chain said Thursday.

Ready Pac Produce, the sole supplier of green onions to Taco Bell restaurants in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, stopped all production of scallions at its Florence, N.J., plant, which was visited Wednesday by federal food inspectors.

"As soon as we heard news from Taco Bell about the positive yet inconclusive results, we took immediate action to do everything we could," said Steve Dickstein, marketing vice president for Irwindale-based Ready Pac, one of the nation's leading produce packers.

Taco Bell removed scallions from all 5,800 of its restaurants Wednesday after preliminary tests linked them to the E. coli bacteria. State and federal investigators also are scrutinizing other non-meat ingredients on the Taco Bell menu, such as cheese, lettuce, yellow onions and tomatoes, as they try to pin down the source.

At least 46 confirmed cases of E. coli sickness linked to Taco Bell have been reported in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Dickstein said the scallions came from Boskovich Farms Inc. of Oxnard, "although the investigation continues as to whether they were contaminated."

The farm did not return repeated calls for comment. Its Web site said it had not been contacted by health officials. Oxnard is about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

This is the second E. coli scare to hit Ready Pac in the past four months. In September, spinach with the Ready Pac label was among dozens of brands pulled from the shelves when federal authorities traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to a San Juan Bautista processing plant that bags its spinach and dozens of other brands. The spinach was traced to California's Salinas Valley, on the Central Coast.

In the latest outbreak, at least five people remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage. Federal officials said there are possible cases in Delaware and Connecticut, as well. In Delaware, where all 14 Taco Bell restaurants closed voluntarily, public health officials were investigating two cases that may be linked to the outbreak.

Green onions have been the source of nine food-borne illness outbreaks since 1994, said Douglas Powell, food safety professor at Kansas State University. If scallions are contaminated at any stage of the growing process, their structure makes it difficult to remove the bacteria solely by washing because the onions can carry pathogens inside their multiple layers, Powell said.

California is the nation's largest supplier of green onions, but by December, as winter sets in, the vegetable is typically imported from Mexico.

Tainted green onions from Mexico were blamed for a 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A in western Pennsylvania that was also traced to a Mexican restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 people were sickened after eating the green onions at a Chi-Chi's.

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strain of E. coli that caused the infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach.

It can be spread if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.

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

The first lawsuit has already been filed in the Taco Bell case.

Attorneys for the family of an 11-year-old boy filed suit Wednesday, claiming that negligence by the restaurant chain led to an E. coli outbreak that sickened the boy.

The boy, Tyler Vormittag, became ill after eating three tacos with cheese and lettuce at a Taco Bell in Riverhead, on Long Island, on Nov. 24, according to the lawsuit filed late Wednesday. He was hospitalized Nov. 28 and released Nov. 29, his attorney said.

"When a restaurant serves food, it is deemed to be fit for human consumption and that it does not contain any deleterious or harmful substances," said his attorney. "The Taco Bell restaurant clearly breached that duty."

A Taco Bell spokeswoman said the company had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. The Irvine, Calif.-based chain is a subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc.


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