Green onions suspected of sickening Taco Bell customers in six states have been traced to one of Ventura County's largest vegetable growers, but authorities said Thursday it was too early to blame anyone for the outbreak.
Taco Bell Corp. voluntarily removed green onions from its restaurants Wednesday after discovering that the "vast majority" of at least 58 people who suffered E. coli food poisoning in the last week, mostly in New Jersey and New York, had eaten at a Taco Bell, federal officials said Thursday. No one has died, but 48 people have been hospitalized with kidney failure or other problems caused by the bacteria.
Taco Bell said its preliminary testing had found a strain of E. coli in its green onions, although it is awaiting confirmation from more accurate tests.
"We have an initial indication that it is the green onions and we have tested everything in our restaurants," said Will Bortz, a spokesman for the Irvine-based fast-food chain, who added that "our investigation is still looking at lots of possible sources."
An official with Oxnard-based Boskovich Farms, which has been growing vegetables for nearly a century, said there was only a tentative link between the E. coli outbreak and the farm's produce.
Federal and state health officials said Thursday that it was premature to blame green onions, Boskovich Farms or the processor, Ready Pac Produce. They said there was no official evidence implicating any particular food.
Kevin Reilly, a deputy director of the California Department of Health Services, said Thursday that there was "no California connection ... based on the science at this point."
The presence of E. coli in Taco Bell's green onions "is not confirmed," Reilly said, adding that there are often false positives in preliminary E. coli tests.
Boskovich Farms is not under investigation, Reilly said.
Ready Pac Produce, based in Irwindale, double-washed, processed and packed the onions at its New Jersey plant. Ready Pac has tested the plant's produce and has not detected any E. coli, said Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's vice president of marketing.
"We run a very clean operation," he said. "This could be a false positive."
If tests confirm that green onions are the source, it would be the second major food-poisoning epidemic in the last few months with reported links to California-grown produce. In September, about 200 people became sick and three died after eating spinach from the Salinas Valley contaminated with the same pathogen implicated at Taco Bell.
Food and Drug Administration officials said they were still investigating other possible sources of contamination at Taco Bell, including cilantro, cheese and lettuce. Meat is not the likely source, because some patients are vegetarians.
Even if the pathogen is confirmed in the green onions, it remains unknown whether the contamination occurred in the restaurants, at an Oxnard field or in the New Jersey processing plant. E. coli 0157:H7, the strain found in the initial test, resides in the guts of livestock.
Boskovich Farms has been a major grower in Ventura County since 1915 and grows 20 crops.
"Green onions are a major item for us," said Lindsay Martinez, marketing director for Boskovich Farms.
The company farms on 1,712 acres in Camarillo, Oxnard and Moorpark, said David Buttner, chief deputy agricultural commissioner for Ventura County. It also imports green onions from Mexico, but not for Taco Bell.
Boskovich Farms said in a statement that it "has been an industry leader in developing and implementing food safety programs to reduce the risk of microbial contamination." The company said it followed procedures developed by growers and reviewed food safety with an internal team and independent auditors.
"They are on the cutting edge. They are innovative and sensitive to food safety issues," said Rex Laird, executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
But Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases, said he sued the restaurant chain Chi-Chis and Boskovich Farms, among others, for a 2003 hepatitis A outbreak linked to green onions in Pennsylvania. He settled with Chi-Chis for $50 million; that company continues to litigate with Boskovich Farms.
In that case, Marler said, the FDA established that the tainted green onions that sickened about 600 people came from a farm in Mexico.
At the Ready Pac plant in New Jersey, the onions were washed in a chlorine solution, rinsed, chopped into quarter-inch sections and then washed and rinsed a second time, Dickstein said. Ready Pac then dried the onions and packed them into boxes before shipping them to McLane Foodservice, Taco Bell's distributor in the region.
"This is far superior to the type of cleaning that goes on in restaurants or that you can do in your home," Dickstein said.
But although washing onions is important, it does not eliminate all risk, said Robert Gravani, a Cornell University food science professor.
"The organisms are very difficult to remove once they adhere to produce, and we can't rely on washing to get rid of them," Gravani said. "The obvious way to stop this is prevention on the field in the farm."
Most E. coli illnesses are traced to beef, but produce has often been implicated recently.
Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said there had been nine food poisoning outbreaks nationwide involving green onions since 1994, although this would be the first he knew of involving E. coli 0157:H7. That strain causes bloody diarrhea and can be lethal.
In the latest outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported cases in New York (19), New Jersey (28), Pennsylvania (8), Delaware (1), South Carolina (1) and Utah (1).
Shares of Taco Bell's parent, Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc., fell $1.20, or 1.9%, to $61.08.