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Green Onions Removed From Taco Bell

First it was an outbreak of unknown origin, then we learned some of those sickened were vegetarians. Now Taco Bell has issued a statement explaining that it had removed green onions from its restaurants:

December 6, 2006 — Taco Bell Corp. announced today that it has removed green onions at all of its approximately 5,800 restaurants nationwide. The move is strictly a precautionary effort following recent E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks believed to be linked to several of its restaurants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The company has been working around the clock with State and County Health Department officials in these three states, along with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine the root cause of this issue.

While tests are preliminary and not yet conclusive, three samples of green onions were found to be presumptive positive for E. coli 0157:H7 by an independent testing laboratory engaged by Taco Bell. Upon learning of the presumptive positive results, the company took immediate action by notifying health authorities and its restaurants. State health officials are conducting their own testing and Taco Bell is awaiting final analysis from this ingredient testing.

“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, Taco Bell President. “Taco Bell’s first concern is the health and safety of our customers and employees. We have been working closely with state health authorities to establish the root cause of this issue. Based on the preliminary test results we received late last night, the company did not want to wait and took immediate action to safeguard public health.”

Once conclusive test results are available, the company will immediately provide that information to the public, including commercial supplier information. The company has an established Toll Free Number 1-800 TACO BELL to enable all customers or employees affected by the outbreak, or those having questions or concerns regarding this issue, to contact Taco Bell. Consumers can also visit for information.

It has been all over the consumer press and the combination of scallions or green onions with Mexican-style food reminds people of the hepatitis outbreak that ended the chance of saving the Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain.

Some of the best coverage has been at The Star-Ledger, a hat tip to Lou Cooperhouse, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center for passing it along. The coverage includes a story implicating non-meat foods, finding a pattern pointing to a food distributor and discussing the fact that franchisees are usually only as safe as their franchisor makes them.

Taco Bell is being rather odd. The announcement is only available on its web site by looking in tabs that consumers will not be familiar with. They also intentionally set it up so you can’t link to it. They haven’t offered to pay medical bills. They are not getting good advice, or they are not listening to it.

Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, is still pretending it is not involved, with nothing on its web site.

New Star was quick to report they don’t sell to Taco Bell and they have an extensive food safety program.

Getting out there ahead of a story is smart PR but a little risky. Although Yum! Brands has a good reputation for food safety practices, we will learn exactly how aligned Taco Bell’s supply chain is. Can we be 100% certain that they never were short a few boxes and picked up a brand different from what they contract for on a terminal market? We will find out soon.

The produce industry may get a real black eye on this one. In his testimony, following the spinach E. coli outbreak before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of the United States Senate, Robert E. Brackett, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, specifically mentioned green onions:

Since 2005, as part of the Produce Safety Action Plan, FDA has provided technical assistance to industry in developing guidance for five commodity groups: cantaloupes, lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, green onions, and herbs. These commodities account for more than 80% of the foodborne outbreaks associated with produce. Three of the guidance documents (for cantaloupes, tomatoes, and lettuce and leafy greens) have been completed. We have recently made these guidance documents available, and FDA has done outreach and training with the industry to implement the guidance. FDA is still working on the commodity-specific guidance for herbs and green onions.

In March of this year, we released draft guidance for the fresh-cut produce industry, “Draft Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables.” We are currently working to finalize this guidance document.

The question that will soon be asked: What is the hold-up on developing commodity specific guidelines for green onions? Does our industry have a good answer?

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