The produce industry and federal regulators are facing renewed pressure to adopt stricter guidelines for growing and handling fresh fruit and vegetables after Taco Bell on Wednesday said it would remove green onions from its 5,800 restaurants following a recent E. coli outbreak.
The Irvine-based company said preliminary testing by an independent lab found possible contamination by a potentially deadly strain of E. coli in three samples of green onions. The outbreak has sickened dozens of people in at least four states in the Northeast. E. coli is found in the feces of animals and humans.
"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," said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell Corp., whose corporate parent, Yum Brands Inc., also owns Pizza Hut and KFC.
The episode is the latest in a series of outbreaks of illness -- traced to fresh or raw vegetables and fruit. Last month, salmonella-tainted tomatoes sickened 183 people in 21 states and Canada. An E. coli outbreak in September led to the deaths of three people who ate California-grown spinach. And this week, San Francisco-based Jamba Juice issued a warning when a supplier of frozen strawberries discovered some of the fruit was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that causes diarrhea and fevers and can be fatal to young children and the elderly.
Reports of E. coli infection at Taco Bell restaurants began to emerge on the East Coast late last week. By Wednesday, 70 people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware were ill, federal investigators said. Additional cases were suspected in Connecticut. No deaths have been reported, the Food and Drug Administration said.
Investigators have not identified the source of contamination, but the outbreak was scaring away fast-food customers -- some 3,000 miles away -- from partaking of their usual fare. "It's something to be concerned about," said Gray Palmer, 52, of Highland Park when he drove into a Taco Bell-KFC outlet in Westchester.
"I think I will avoid them for a while until there is an all-clear," said Palmer, who decided on a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a side of mashed potatoes.
El Camino Community College student Marcus White learned about the news as he was driving up to the restaurant. The 19-year-old said it intensified his dislike for onions.
"I definitely won't eat here if I know people have been getting sick from the food, not until I know it's all OK," White said, driving off in his black Ford pickup truck without entering the eatery.
Evidence suggests that the outbreak is expanding, said Robert Tauxe, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Disease, which began studying the cluster of illnesses Monday.
"We don't know the scope of this yet," he said. "I'm glad we're in here early. There may be actions that will stop it from growing."
New Jersey food safety regulators and the FDA are investigating two suppliers: McLane Foodservice and a Florence, N.J., facility operated by Irwindale-based Ready Pac Foods Inc.
McLane is the sole distributor of ingredients for Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey, New York's Long Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Ready Pac Produce processes lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Green onions are processed exclusively for Taco Bell in one section of the Ready Pac plant.
"Even though the test results are not confirmed, we have taken every prudent precaution and immediately stopped production and shipments of all green onions," said Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's vice president for marketing. "All raw and processed green onions have been removed from the plant as part of our precautionary measures."
The recent series of outbreaks "indicates that our food supply could be safer," said Carl Winter, a UC Davis food safety expert.
An estimated 76 million Americans are stricken with a food-borne illness annually from consuming tainted food in restaurants and at home, he said.
Fresh or raw produce accounts for more illness outbreaks, and more sick people, than any other food product, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has asked the FDA to issue new regulations to ensure the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
DeWaal's organization wants to bar the use of raw manure as fertilizer during the growing season. It also is seeking more stringent monitoring of manure composting practices to make sure that pathogens are destroyed, and it advocates more frequent testing of water used for irrigation. The Washington-based group also wants packages to better reflect which farm a product came from.