More Cases Of Food Poisoning Reported

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Authorities in three states are investigating hundreds more cases of food poisoning in the northeastern United States, and federal investigators said yesterday that their prime suspect, green onions, may not have caused the outbreak.

The Food and Drug Administration said tests did not find green onions as the cause.

"There's nothing to implicate green onions right now," said David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

All of the 64 confirmed cases of E. coli poisoning, in five states, are limited to people who ate at Taco Bell restaurants.

New York, New Jersey and Delaware authorities are investigating 388 possible cases of food poisoning, according to their Web sites. Pennsylvania is investigating more cases.

"As nearly half the entire U.S. adult population eats at a Taco Bell at least once a month, it's easy to understand how we might be considered associated with this illness," Taco Bell President Greg Creed said yesterday in a statement.

Taco Bell removed green onions from its 5,982 restaurants in the United States and Canada on Wednesday after a preliminary test of three samples found them to be "presumptive" positive.

The FDA attempted to "confirm the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in the samples they had preliminarily found to be positive," Acheson said. "I can now report that all of those samples have turned out to be negative."

Officials at Taco Bell announced Saturday that it would not return green onions to menus and that it had switched suppliers in the Northeast. It also declared that its food was safe, after receiving independent tests of other ingredients used.

"Based on this testing and all that we know today, I can reassure you that all Taco Bell food is safe and strict standards are being upheld at all of our restaurants," Creed said.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there have been no new confirmed reports but that monitoring will continue for a few days.

Acheson said the FDA and the CDC are continuing their investigation to determine the source of the outbreak. He said Taco Bell is cooperating.

Health officials in New York said a sample of white onions taken from a Taco Bell in Hempstead, N.Y., tested positive for E. coli. The positive sample initially was mistakenly identified as being a green onion, Acheson said. However, that strain of bacteria has not been linked to any cases of illness in the United States in the previous 30 days.

E.coli, or Escherichia coli, is a usually harmless bacteria found in the guts of animals, including humans. But an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 60 deaths in the United States are caused each year from E.coli O157:H7, which was identified in 1982.

Meanwhile, nearly three dozen people have fallen ill with symptoms consistent with E. coli infection after eating at a Taco John's restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

There is no indication the outbreaks are linked but the CDC has not ruled out a connection, said Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist with the agency. Iowa officials suspect that a sick restaurant worker could have spread the illness. The two restaurant chains are not related.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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