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Will Green Onions Ever Get
Back On The Menu Of Taco Bell?

The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services was out first with the official news:

Laboratory tests at the Department of Health and Senior Services have confirmed that 11 of 33 people with culture confirmed cases of E coli 0157 likely have the same strain of the disease.

Only one test result has been received confirming the presence of the H7 strain of the disease, which is far more serious and can result in kidney failure. The remaining test results on the H7 strain are pending.

The Department is investigating a total of 55 reports of illnesses in New Jersey residents from 13 counties: Middlesex, Union, Somerset, Camden, Passaic, Essex, Cape May, Mercer, Gloucester, Monmouth, Hunterdon, Ocean and Bergen.

Nearly 80 percent of the illnesses reported have involved eating at a Taco Bell franchise. The individuals reported getting sick between Nov. 9 and Dec. 6 and have an age range of 1-51 years.

“While our investigation is continuing, today’s results preliminarily link these 11 patients to the same strain of E coli,’’ said Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner Fred M. Jacobs, M.D., J.D.

“This additional information provides more evidence that these cases may indeed be related,’’ Dr. Jacobs said.

Dr. Jacobs stressed that the food source that may be linked to this multi-state outbreak has yet to be identified

The New York State Department of Health has issued its notice and the Department of Health in Pennsylvania issued its press release as did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) on the national level.

The CDC had the best succinct synopsis of what we know today:

As of 1 PM (ET) December 7, 2006, Thursday, 58 cases associated with this outbreak have been reported to CDC from 6 states: New York (19), New Jersey (28), Pennsylvania (8), Delaware (1), South Carolina (1), and Utah (1). Other cases of E. coli O157 infection are under investigation by state public health officials. The vast majority of patients reported eating at a particular fast-food restaurant chain, Taco Bell. No specific food has been implicated yet.

Among the ill persons, 48 (83%) were hospitalized and 7 (12%) developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). Illness onset dates have ranged from November 20 to December 2. The risk to the public is considered ongoing and we expect additional cases to be identified in the coming days.

Ready Pac, which does not sell green onions as part of its normal product line, processed specially packed green onions in its Florence, New Jersey plant just for Taco Bell and has stopped production and shipment of green onions.

Boskovich Farms, which sold green onions to Ready Pac, said it is working with everybody to figure it all out, that it has a great food safety program and that it is sad that people have fallen ill.

So far the link to green onions is not confirmed. All we have is Taco Bell’s previous statement:

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.

Taco Bell remains strangely silent. A press release hidden on a back page in its website is its approach. And Yum! Brands, its parent company, continues to pretend it is not involved with not a word on the website. Very strange.

Perhaps they are all suffering a severe case of deja vue as they remember the year 2000 when green onions and Taco Bell were implicated in a Hepatitis A outbreak .

The big loss for spinach in its E. coli crisis was in the reformulation of spring mixes and menu changes at restaurants. Those types of changes represent business lost forever.

One wonders if they will ever put green onions back on the menu?

One thing is certain… all the initiatives for food safety better ask hard questions on the issue we raised yesterday:

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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