WASHINGTON — Lettuce served at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast has been highlighted as a likely source of the recent multistate E. coli outbreak that sickened 71 people, said Christopher Braden, medical epidemiologist, Center for Disease Control and Prevention in a Food and Drug Administration-hosted press conference last week.
If lettuce is found to be the source, it would mark the second time in recent months that a leafy green vegetable was implicated in an outbreak of the illness. Fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli was blamed for three deaths and about 200 illnesses in September.
The CDC found in a case-controlled study that lettuce, cheddar cheese and ground beef were the products statistically associated with the people who became sick after eating at Taco Bell. However, this finding does not indicate that all of these ingredients were contaminated, Braden said.
Based on factors such as processing techniques, distribution and the microbiological characteristics of the food, “what we feel is the most likely food vehicle in this outbreak is lettuce, and I would warn we're not done with the investigation,” he said.
The FDA has not ruled out cheddar cheese, and the USDA is investigating the ground beef possibility.
Early last week, Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell launched a newspaper ad blitz to reassure consumers that its food is safe to eat. Greg Creed, president of the chain, signed an open letter that ran in USA Today, The New York Times and other papers, informing the public of company actions taken in response to the recent outbreak.
On Dec. 6, the company pulled green onions from all 5,800 of its stores even though lab tests showed no confirmed positive results for the product. FDA tests of various food samples has found no E. coli, and onions have been ruled out at this point. The FDA is working with Taco Bell and its suppliers and distributors in efforts to trace back the source of contamination.
Taco Bell's distributor, Carrollton, Texas-based McLane Foodservice, also announced last week that site investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health and Environmental Services found no evidence of improper storage or hand-ling practices on its part at the warehouse that supplied the Taco Bells where the outbreak occurred.