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Taco Bell illnesses up on LI

As the bacterial outbreak dramatically expands in the area, the inquiry hones in on a scallion connection

Dec 7, 2006 | Newsday
Taco Bell

E. Coli Outbreak Expanded Dramatically

The E.coli outbreak expanded dramatically yesterday as the number of people possibly sickened after eating in Taco Bells jumped from 10 to 29 in Nassau County, while Suffolk officials said tests on green onions in a restaurant in Deer Park detected the potentially fatal bacteria.

Nationwide, Taco Bell ordered green onions, also called scallions, removed from all of its 5,800 restaurants as health officials suggested they were the cause of an outbreak that has stricken several dozen people in at least three states.

"In an abundance of caution, we've decided to pull all the green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E.coli outbreak," said Greg Creed, president of the Irvine, Calif.-based corporation, whose Taco Bell restaurants draw about 35 million customers a week.

In Suffolk, the number of patients possibly sickened by the contaminated scallions rose from 11 to 12 yesterday, as a new case involving a 9-year-old boy who ate at the Taco Bell in Patchogue surfaced. In Nassau, health officials said their new patients included a woman who ate in a Taco Bell in Naples, Fla., and later became ill after returning to Long Island.

It was not immediately clear if the investigation into the outbreak was expanding to Florida as a result of the woman's illness.

Taco Bell shut nine stores in the Philadelphia area yesterday, set up a nationwide hotline, 800-TACOBELL, for people with concerns about the outbreak, and removed thousands of scallions.

County Executive Thomas Suozzi said Nassau had dispatched inspectors to all 24 Taco Bell restaurants in the county to ensure they had thrown out all scallions. Four stores were closed Monday and reopened Tuesday after contaminated food was removed and the facilities sanitized.

Suozzi also said he had asked two Taco Bell stores in New Hyde Park and Seaford to close because of cases of E.coli linked to them. The manager at the Seaford restaurant refused to close, prompting Nassau officials to contact Taco Bell's corporate headquarters, which then ordered the restaurant shut, Suozzi said.

Rob Poetsch said, he had no Information on Suozzi's Allegation but that the Restaurant was Closed Down

Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Taco Bell, said he had no information on Suozzi's allegation but that the restaurant was closed down. Suozzi said a 54-year-old woman who ate at the restaurant was facing a potential kidney shutdown.

In Suffolk, the Department of Health Services said preliminary results of food samples obtained at the Taco Bell in Deer Park tested positive for E.coli using a rapid-testing method. They expect conclusive results today.

Officials said in a statement that they performed the tests on an unopened package of food at the restaurant, which "indicates that the green onions were already contaminated with E.coli O157 prior to being received" by the Taco Bell.

They added that not all the people sickened had eaten items containing green onions, but that "cross-contamination of green onions with other ingredients may explain why" those people fell ill.

Health officials have not fully determined the source of the contamination but are examining a food distribution center in Burlington, N.J., among other sites, for clues as to the cause of the contamination.

Four Suffolk Taco Bells linked to the outbreak were shut down late Monday and re-opened Tuesday after they were completely cleaned and re-sanitized and all existing food was thrown out.

Health officials said they believed the danger had passed because all the people who became ill had eaten at Taco Bell between Nov. 20 and Nov. 25, and no new cases had arisen since then. But they still plan to test newly arrived food at Taco Bells starting today.

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