Lettuce Suspected in Taco Bell E. Coli

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 13, 2006; 11:10 PM

WASHINGTON -- Health officials on Wednesday zeroed in on lettuce as the likely suspect in the E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell, though tracing the vegetable's source may prove difficult.

The outbreak apparently has run its course after 71 confirmed cases of the disease in five states, primarily New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, officials said.

Investigators considered cheddar cheese and ground beef as possible contaminated ingredients before settling on lettuce. The company first believed green onions were responsible, but follow-up testing by the government failed to confirm that.

Interviews with patients and other investigative work pointed toward lettuce as the culprit.

"That I would say is the most likely vehicle. I would warn we are not done with the investigation," Dr. Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

Taco Bell's menu, with its various combinations of the same ingredients, made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

"That has been the case and is part of the reason it has taken a number of days to identify what might be the contaminated ingredient," Braden said.

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition discussed plans to trace the lettuce to its source. But because the shredded lettuce was processed in bulk, that could turn out to be a hard task.

The evidence that lettuce was responsible for the illnesses was statistical _ it was the item that victims most commonly reported eating.

Taco Bell's president, Greg Creed, said the CDC and FDA told the company "it was highly unlikely it's cheese or beef because cheese is pasteurized and the beef preparation ruled them out."

He declined to identify the supplier of the lettuce to the Northeastern restaurants, said 80 percent of the lettuce from that supplier did not go to Taco Bell and noted Taco Bell has a new supplier for those states.

The lettuce potentially linked to the outbreak came from the West, he said, declining to be more specific.

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