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Fast-food industry's vulnerable underbelly

After an E. coli outbreak led to steps to make meat safer, illness from the germ is linked increasingly to fresh produce.

March 11, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The Klaus family has lived the fast-food industry's nightmare: people getting sick from E. coli.

A few days after picking up a dinner of hamburgers and chicken nuggets at a Wendy's drive-in, the Salem, Ore., family received a call from county health inspectors inquiring whether they had eaten food from the chain.

JoAnn Klaus already knew something was wrong: Her 4-year-old son, Evan, was hospitalized with diarrhea and dehydration, and 23-month-old Scott had similar symptoms.

As the brothers received blood transfusions to save their lives, health inspectors scoured the local Wendy's looking for any source of the E. coli bacteria that had attacked the boys. They discovered that restaurant employees cleaned lettuce with equipment that was used to handle raw hamburger meat.

The boys are still paying the price for their meal. Now 11 and 8, Evan and Scott see a kidney specialist annually. Scott takes medication for high blood pressure, and doctors say he may develop kidney problems in adolescence.

Cases like this still haunt the fast-food industry. In the last few months, hundreds of diners have been sickened by E. coli transmitted through lettuce served by fast-food chains Taco Bell and Taco John's.

Without improvements in food handling, especially of produce, new outbreaks of E. coli and other food-borne diseases will shake the public's confidence in the fare served at restaurants, industry executives say.

"People might start to say they shouldn't eat anywhere," said Brian Dixon, vice president of marketing for Taco John's.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52% of the 9,040 outbreaks of food-borne illness reported between 1998 and 2004, the latest year for which numbers are available, were linked to restaurants and other commercial food establishments.

Irvine-based Taco Bell, a division of Yum Brands Inc., sells more than $6 billion of tacos, chalupas and burritos annually through its 5,800 U.S. restaurants. Industry analysts believe the chain's sales plunged in the Northeast during the outbreak late last year. Yum, which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut, said Taco Bell's sales fell 5% in the fourth quarter of 2006, when the outbreak occurred, and that the incident cost the chain $20 million in operating profit.

The outbreak occurred at Taco Bells in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, but reverberated across the nation.

"If it happens on one coast the people on the other coast will know 10 minutes later," said Ted Taft, a food industry consultant with Meridian Consulting Group in Wilton, Conn.

E. coli has dogged the fast-food industry since 1992, when tainted hamburger meat served by the Jack in the Box chain killed three children and sickened 700 patrons.

Roni Rudolph Austin still bears the emotional scars of that outbreak. Her 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, died 10 days after eating a hamburger with contaminated meat from a Jack in the Box in Carlsbad, Calif.

"It upsets me that we are so many years past the point when Lauren died and we are still seeing this," Austin said.

"You can't protect your children from ignorance, but that's how E. coli gets out -- through people's ignorance in how to process foods," he said.

The incident sparked large-scale testing for E. coli, more stringent inspections and improved sanitation in slaughterhouses as well as other regulatory changes. Fast-food chains also reviewed their cooking techniques to make sure meat was heated to at least 160 degrees, the temperature that kills the pathogen.

Those measures, while changing the way many fast-food chains operate and reducing outbreaks from contaminated meat, did nothing to improve the safety of produce.

"Produce is the Achilles' heel of the restaurant industry," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, who was hired as a consultant by Taco Bell during the outbreak. "People eat it raw and the produce industry does not have a sure-fire treatment that kills harmful bacteria." Health officials say contaminated lettuce found its way from the California farms to the companies that chop and dice the greens that caused the Taco Bell and Taco John's outbreaks. Lettuce is used in 70% of Taco Bell's food items.

"This is a serious issue," Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz said. "We need to identify where there are loopholes in the system and address how to fix them, both for Taco Bell and the industry."

Last month, the Department of Agriculture announced a new meat inspection policy that would increase scrutiny of processing plants with repeated safety violations and where the threat of E. coli is higher. Less-risky plants with better food-handling records would be inspected less often. Under this new system, hamburger processors would get more oversight.

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