SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. – Taco Bell ordered scallions removed from its 5,800 U.S. restaurants Wednesday after tests suggested they may be responsible for the E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least three dozen people in three states.
The fast-food chain said preliminary testing by an independent lab found three samples of green onions appeared to have a dangerous strain of the bacterium.
"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, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell.
The company would not immediately identify the supplier of the scallions, so it was unclear whether contaminated green onions reached other restaurants or supermarkets.
Tainted green onions from Mexico were blamed for a 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A in western Pennsylvania that was also traced to a Mexican restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 people were sickened after eating the green onions at a Chi-Chi's.
California is the nation's largest supplier of green onions. But by December, as winter sets in, the vegetable is often imported from Mexico.
At least 46 confirmed cases of E. coli sickness linked to Taco Bell have been reported in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
All 15 Taco Bell restaurants in Philadelphia voluntarily closed Wednesday following a recommendation by the city's Department of Public Health.
Two restaurants on New York's Long Island were also closed Wednesday for cleaning. The chain, a subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc., had reopened other restaurants there linked to the outbreak. A Taco Bell in New Jersey remained closed for cleanup. Two other Taco Bells in New Jersey that were implicated never closed.
In Trenton, Nidhi Trikha stopped by an unaffected Taco Bell for a quick lunch Wednesday that included a chicken quesadilla and a bean chalupa — but no green onions. After hearing about the outbreak, she said she was sorry she ate.
"I know fast food is always unhealthy, but it's quick and cheap," she said. "God, I hope I'm OK."
McLane Co., which distributes food to the region's Taco Bells, said federal investigators planned to test green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce from its southern New Jersey warehouse.
Authorities also planned to look at a nearby facility of a produce processor, Ready Pac Produce, which handles lettuce, tomatoes, onions and other ingredients for Taco Bell. A Ready Pac spokesman did not immediately return calls.
At least five people in the three states remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage. New Jersey's health commissioner has said the most recent case of E. coli was reported Nov. 29, so the danger of infection appears to have passed.
E. coli is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach. The germs can be spread by people if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.
E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis and death.
Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill in an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged, fresh spinach grown in California.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Larry Miller said the outbreak could affect Taco Bell sales in the short term. "It will take time for consumers to get confidence back, but it will come back," he said.
Taco Bell established a telephone number, 1-800-TACO BELL, for those with concerns about the outbreak.