The produce industry and federal regulators are facing renewed pressure to adopt stricter guidelines for growing and handling fresh fruit and vegetables after Taco Bell on Wednesday said it would remove green onions from its 5,800 restaurants following a recent E. coli outbreak.
The Irvine-based company said preliminary testing by an independent lab found possible contamination by a potentially deadly strain of E. coli in three samples of green onions. The outbreak has sickened dozens of people in at least four states in the Northeast. E. coli is found in the feces of animals and humans.
"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 Taco Bell Corp., whose corporate parent, Yum Brands Inc., also owns Pizza Hut and KFC.
The episode is the latest in a series of outbreaks of illness -- traced to fresh or raw vegetables and fruit. Last month, salmonella-tainted tomatoes sickened 183 people in 21 states and Canada. An E. coli outbreak in September led to the deaths of three people who ate California-grown spinach. And this week, San Francisco-based Jamba Juice issued a warning when a supplier of frozen strawberries discovered some of the fruit was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that causes diarrhea and fevers and can be fatal to young children and the elderly.
Reports of E. coli infection at Taco Bell restaurants began to emerge on the East Coast late last week. By Wednesday, 70 people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware were ill, federal investigators said. Additional cases were suspected in Connecticut. No deaths have been reported, the Food and Drug Administration said.
Investigators have not identified the source of contamination, but the outbreak was scaring away fast-food customers -- some 3,000 miles away -- from partaking of their usual fare. "It's something to be concerned about," said Gray Palmer, 52, of Highland Park when he drove into a Taco Bell-KFC outlet in Westchester.
"I think I will avoid them for a while until there is an all-clear," said Palmer, who decided on a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a side of mashed potatoes.
El Camino Community College student Marcus White learned about the news as he was driving up to the restaurant. The 19-year-old said it intensified his dislike for onions.
"I definitely won't eat here if I know people have been getting sick from the food, not until I know it's all OK," White said, driving off in his black Ford pickup truck without entering the eatery.
Evidence suggests that the outbreak is expanding, said Robert Tauxe, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Disease, which began studying the cluster of illnesses Monday.
"We don't know the scope of this yet," he said. "I'm glad we're in here early. There may be actions that will stop it from growing."
New Jersey food safety regulators and the FDA are investigating two suppliers: McLane Foodservice and a Florence, N.J., facility operated by Irwindale-based Ready Pac Foods Inc.
McLane is the sole distributor of ingredients for Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey, New York's Long Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Ready Pac Produce processes lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Green onions are processed exclusively for Taco Bell in one section of the Ready Pac plant.
"Even though the test results are not confirmed, we have taken every prudent precaution and immediately stopped production and shipments of all green onions," said Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's vice president for marketing. "All raw and processed green onions have been removed from the plant as part of our precautionary measures."
The recent series of outbreaks "indicates that our food supply could be safer," said Carl Winter, a UC Davis food safety expert.
An estimated 76 million Americans are stricken with a food-borne illness annually from consuming tainted food in restaurants and at home, he said.
Fresh or raw produce accounts for more illness outbreaks, and more sick people, than any other food product, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has asked the FDA to issue new regulations to ensure the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
DeWaal's organization wants to bar the use of raw manure as fertilizer during the growing season. It also is seeking more stringent monitoring of manure composting practices to make sure that pathogens are destroyed, and it advocates more frequent testing of water used for irrigation. The Washington-based group also wants packages to better reflect which farm a product came from.
DeWaal said California food and agriculture regulators should move forward with similar rules because the state grew much of the nation's produce and could enact such standards more quickly than the federal government.
"The federal food safety system is at a braking point. Operating under antiquated laws and a shoestring budget, they simply cannot manage the job that is front of them," she said.
Other experts agreed that it was time for the federal government to step in.
"The industry is not addressing this well enough," said Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md., said there might be a place for "a stronger regulatory approach" but for now the agency was busy investigating the causes of the recent outbreaks and what could be done to prevent them.
He said the FDA would need considerably more funding to become a stronger watchdog of the produce industry.
"You can't put a regulation in place and expect it to work if you don't have the manpower to enforce it," Acheson said.
Even as the regulation debate heats up, the major produce industry groups are working to develop growing and processing guidelines that could prevent outbreaks. Growers are facing pressure from a consortium of major supermarkets and food wholesalers that are demanding more stringent and enforceable farming practices.
Safer ways to farm lettuce and other leafy greens were the topic of an industry conference with shippers and retailers in Phoenix on Tuesday, said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative, a Salinas, Calif.-based buyer for food distributors.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Assn. in Newark, Del., said growers were at a disadvantage because so much produce is eaten raw.
"You can't wash berries and mushrooms and then ship them. That would destroy them. And the idea of boiled lettuce doesn't appeal to very many people," Means said.
Food safety experts believe several factors have made produce-transmitted illnesses more prominent. In addition to increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, public health officials have developed better surveillance and data-sharing systems, which leads to better and quicker identification of outbreaks.
When people became sick from food previously, the cause and extent of the outbreak was often never known. Now, however, officials can link incidents of food-borne illness and quickly take action to publicize the outbreak and investigate the source.
And it is only a matter of time before the next outbreak crops up, the experts say.
"The question is not if another outbreak will occur," said Winter of UC Davis, "but rather when and in which commodity."
Times staff writer Ron White contributed to this report.
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Sources of disease
Number of food-borne illness cases associated with produce in the U.S. between 1990 and 2004
Green salads: 7,555
Fruit salads: 538
Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest