Taco Bell fired its produce provider in the Northeastern states after green onions supplied by the company were suspected in an E. coli outbreak believed to have sickened more than 160 people, company officials said Saturday.
The Irvine-based Mexican food chain also said that it had tested more than 150 ingredients from its restaurants and, with the exception of a preliminary positive result for green onions, everything was contamination-free.
In another development, at least 19 people have become ill with suspected cases of E. coli after eating at an eastern Iowa outlet of Taco John's, an unrelated fast-food chain.
"What we have is suggestive of E. coli, but we do not at this point have a confirmatory test," Tom O'Rourke, director of the Black Hawk County Health Department, told Reuters. Test results are expected Monday.
Taco Bell is waiting for more extensive tests that could determine whether green onions, also known as scallions, were the cause of the outbreak. The onions have been removed from the chain's 5,800 restaurants.
"We've taken this health issue very seriously and are extremely concerned for all those who are ill," said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell Corp. "Based on our independent testing and all that we know today, I can reassure you that every Taco Bell is safe."
The green onions suspected in the outbreak were grown by Boskovich Farms Inc. of Oxnard and processed at a New Jersey plant owned by Irwindale-based Ready Pac Produce, according to both companies. Taco Bell, however, has not identified its Northeast supplier or disclosed who the new one will be, "for competitive reasons," said Will Bortz, spokesman for the chain.
The switch in suppliers arose from Taco Bell's decision to take "some proactive moves so that customers know our restaurants are safe. If we have to change suppliers to do that, we will," Bortz said.
A Ready Pac spokesman said there still is no firm link between its produce and the E. coli outbreak. Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's vice president of marketing, said there was at least one reported case from Utah, a region where Ready Pac does not supply the chain. Dickstein also said that Taco John's is not a Ready Pac customer.
"Taco Bell switching to a different provider in the Northeast is no indication that this puzzle has been solved," Dickstein said.
"The Food and Drug Administration has not ruled out any food type, there are no conclusive test results, and the investigation continues," he added.
With the exception of green onions, the company still provides Taco Bell with produce in some areas of the U.S., he said.
Although federal health officials have not identified the exact source for the outbreak, they say the link between the 62 reported cases and at least 100 other suspected cases -- mostly in New Jersey and New York -- is that most of the individuals reported eating at Taco Bell.
Creed said about half of the U.S. adult population eats at Taco Bell at least once a month.
Officials tracking the outbreak for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said they expect the number of people taken ill to continue to grow.