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Taco Bell shuts down statewide

1 case of E. coli confirmed in Del., second suspected

Dec 8, 2006 | www.delawareonline.com

Fourteen Taco Bells in Delaware voluntarily closed Thursday as part of an investigation into an outbreak of E. coli that has sickened two people in this state and more than 50 nationwide.

Investigators believe they have identified a California farm as the source of the tainted scallions, which were processed at the same California produce company linked to the recent outbreak of E. coli in spinach that killed three and sickened more than 200 in September.

Delaware's first case of E. coli was confirmed Thursday in a 15-year-old Elsmere girl who was sickened and hospitalized days after eating at a Taco Bell restaurant in Union County, N.J.

Delaware health officials also said they are investigating a second possible case of E. coli in a 22-year-old Wilmington woman who fell ill Wednesday, three days after eating at the Taco Bell at 4302 Kirkwood Highway in Milltown. Results of tests on the woman are expected late this afternoon.

Cheri Chavis, of Elsmere, said her 15-year-old daughter developed diarrhea, cramps and severe stomach pain days after eating two soft tacos at a Taco Bell in South Plainfield, N.J., on Nov. 18. Health officials would not identify Delaware's two victims.

Chavis' daughter was released from Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children on Nov. 28 after spending five days there, Chavis said. "She's recovering. She's on the road to recovery."

All 14 Delaware Taco Bells will remain shut until they can be cleaned and sanitized and their food supplies inventoried, a process the health department said could take two to three days. State health officials also will collect stool samples from the workers at the Kirkwood Highway location and instruct them on enhanced food handling safety procedures.

"Basically, we're looking at all produce," said Thom May, chief of health systems protection for the state Division of Public Health.

The closures come after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines about how to handle the outbreak and as the number of suspected E. coli cases climbed, said Dr. Jaime Rivera, director of the state Division of Public Health.

As of Thursday evening, the CDC was investigating almost 58 probable cases of E. coli and more than 100 suspected cases in seven states: Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, South Carolina and Utah.

Delaware's restaurant inspection process, like those in other states, focuses on safe food-handling practices by kitchen workers, not on the condition of food before it comes into the kitchen.

Inspectors test the cooking and storage temperatures of food to make sure they are not susceptible to bacteria growth. They do not regularly test for E. coli or other bacteria that might be present in food, especially if it was contaminated before it entered the kitchen.

Inspectors may confiscate a batch of food if it is suspected as the source of a food-borne illness. It then would be tested for bacteria that could be linked to the illness.

Inspectors do check kitchens for food from an unapproved source, such as a home kitchen or a manufacturer that does not conform to the state's health standards. That food is usually thrown away.

Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Taco Bell, which is based in Irvine, Calif. and is part of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands, said the restaurant chain agreed to the closure of its Delaware restaurants and is working with health authorities here and in the other affected states to determine the cause of the outbreak.

"We're working as quickly as we can to get the restaurants resanitized and approved by the health department for reopening," Poetsch said. "Obviously, we're very concerned about the health and well-being of our customers."

On Wednesday, the company removed green onions, which are suspected to be a possible source of the outbreak, from all 5,800 of its U.S. restaurants.

The Taco Bell restaurants in New Castle County are serviced by a McLane Foodservice distribution center in Burlington Township, N.J., the same center that distributes all ingredients, including cheese, meat items and produce, to Taco Bells in New Jersey, Long Island, New York City and portions of eastern Pennsylvania, said Bart McKay, a spokesman for McLane, which is based in Carrollton, Texas.

The Taco Bells in Kent and Sussex counties are served by a McLane distribution center in Manassas, Va., McKay said. McLane is a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The Burlington Township distribution center, which remains open, has been sanitized, and company officials are working with the CDC "to assess the scope and cause of the problem and craft a set of remedial actions," McKay said.

Ready Pac Foods Inc., an Irwindale, Calif.-based distributor, supplied McLane. It said it had halted packing green onions for Taco Bell. Ready Pac has removed all green onions from its plant, Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac vice president for marketing, told Bloomberg News. He said the vegetables came from a supplier with farms in California.

Ready Pac was among dozens of brands whose spinach was pulled from supermarket shelves in September after federal authorities traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to a California processing plant that bags spinach for it and other brands.


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