Taco Bell E. Coli Source Still a Mystery

Taco Bell is trying to reassure consumers that its food is safe after an outbreak of E. Coli. The bacteria has been linked to illness in at least 67 customers in the Northeast. No one has become ill for at least a week, but it's still not clear what caused the outbreak.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Taco Bell is trying to reassure customers that its food is safe after an outbreak of E. coli. The bacteria has been linked to at least 67 customers in the Northeast. No one has become ill for at least a week, but it's still not clear what caused the outbreak or who is responsible.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following the story from here on the West Coast, where Taco Bell gets much of its produce. Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Does the fact that no one has gotten sick since at least last week mean the outbreak is over?

KAHN: Well, the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration are both saying that they're getting fewer and fewer cases reported, but they're not willing to say that it's over yet. And now there are reports of new cases coming out of Iowa and Minnesota from people who ate at restaurants with a similar distributor. But those E. coli cases are in the initial stages of investigation and have no links to the Northeast outbreak.

MONTAGNE: And that's not Taco Bell?

KAHN: No, it's not. In Iowa it's Taco John restaurants.

MONTAGNE: The first suspects, Carrie, were green onions. Now they seem to have been cleared.

KAHN: Well, that information came from Taco Bell itself. And after being contacted by local and state health officials, the company went into their restaurants in New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania and they did their own testing. They sent them to independent labs. And when those came back preliminary positive, the FDA got a hold of those tested samples and ran their own tests, which are the gold standard test. And those came back negative.

And then there was this whole confusing twist on Monday when a bag of white onions that were tested by the FDA came back positive for E. coli, but then they found out that that was a different strain of the bacteria and not connected to the outbreak. So all onions are not connected to the outbreak.

MONTAGNE: You know, why is this investigation taking what seems to be rather a long time. And we just remember the outbreak with spinach, they seemed to figure out and kind of get to the supplier pretty quickly.

KAHN: There's a couple of reasons for that. And I'll do a quick timeline for this. Part of this is just it takes people a while to report the illness, from the time you eat the food until the time you actually get sick. That's three to four days. And then it could take anywhere from one to five days for people to actually go to the doctor.

Then the doctor has to send out for tests. That's another day. And then they have to send those tests to the CDC or the FDA for DNA finger printing, and that's to make sure that the strains of the E. coli are the same in all the infected people so that they can say that there is a collective outbreak. So from ingestion to confirmation can be anywhere from two to three weeks.

And then, unlike the spinach outbreak earlier this year, all the people told investigators that they ate spinach, and for many of them they still have the bagged spinach in their refrigerators, so the investigators could go and test the bagged spinach. You know at Taco Bell, it's different. I brought some samples of some - I went to Taco Bell right before I came in. I know it's a little early in the morning, but here's a double…

MONTAGNE: Oh. Oh, my Taco Bell in our neighborhood here. Oh my God, oh my God.

KAHN: This is a…

MONTAGNE: …little cool now, but I can see…

KAHN: Yeah that's a double taco supreme. So what do you see (unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: Cheese, tomatoes, sour crème, lettuce, taco beans,

KAHN: Right, then you have seasoning, and you have cilantro, and you have lots of different kinds of onions. The man was very clear to tell me that there were no green onions in those.

MONTAGNE: Oh really.

KAHN: So there's a lot of produce involved, and so you have a lot of different things to look at. And now that onions are not suspected, they're looking at other avenues. They have got a lot of places to go. You get tomatoes from different places. You get lettuce from different places. That's part of why it's taking such a lot time.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's also different agencies in this mix. Well, who's finally responsible for finding out what happened?

KAHN: There are a lot of agencies, you know, local state and the federal and - it is a problem. And so yesterday, several senators from the Northeast came out, and they want the federal agencies to create a joint task force to examine this E. coli outbreak and recommend changes in laws and regulations to prevent contamination of the food.

MONTAGNE: And if only to Taco Bell, it was applauded when it came out so quickly and said, you know, take control, green onions that's the problem, we're solving it. Green onions don't seem to be the problem now, is that a problem for Taco Bell?

KAHN: It is. And it's complicated for them because the CEO was on the media all over yesterday and put out ads in major newspapers across the United States saying that the food is safe but it's complicated because they don't know what the product was that was contaminated. So it's made that complicated for them. And they also have been criticized for naming a grower in California, here in Southern California, and also their distributors.

Yet these people have not been implicated by any other agencies other than Taco Bell. So it's a complicated situation for the company right now.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Carrie Kahn.

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