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Taco Bell E. Coli Outbreak Still a Mystery

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Last year’s Taco Bell E. coli outbreak should be a closed case by now, but contradictory reports on the outbreak leave the impression that health investigators know very little about the E. coli outbreak that sickened dozens of people across the country.   While California health officials maintain that contaminated lettuce served at Taco Bell was responsible for the E. coli illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that contaminated lettuce was only one of several possible E. coli sources.

In December 2006, E. coli poisoning in patrons of Taco Bell restaurants around the country began to be reported. E. coli is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the intestines of most animals, including humans. Most types of the bacteria are harmless, but the E. coli 0157:H7 strain that was involved in the Taco Bell outbreak can be particularly dangerous to people. The symptoms of E. coli poisoning usually occur within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. E. coli 0157:H7 causes a disease called hemorrhagic colitis, which is the sudden onset of stomach pain and severe cramps. This is followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. Sometimes there is vomiting, but there is no fever. The illness lasts about a week. While most people will recover completely, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system. In some cases, E. coli 0157:H7 will cause a disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening. According to the CDC, E. coli 0157:H7 is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease.

Ultimately, a total of 71 E. coli poisoning cases in five states were linked to Taco Bell restaurants: Delaware (2 cases), New Jersey (33 cases), New York (22 cases), Pennsylvania (13 cases) and South Carolina (1 case — this person ate at a Taco Bell in Pennsylvania). A total of 53 hospitalizations and 8 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome were also reported.

An investigation into the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak by the California Food Emergency Response Team determined that lettuce from two California growers was to blame for the outbreak.   But a traceback by the Food & Drug Administration did not find E. coli contamination in those lettuce fields.  Further, the CDC report on the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak was less definitive about its source.   The CDC report reads in part: “Public health investigators have identified a few ingredients that were consumed more often by ill persons than well persons and were statistically linked with illness: lettuce, cheddar cheese, and ground beef.”

The Taco Bell E. coli outbreak illustrates how difficult it is for health authorities to definitively determine the origin of a food poisoning outbreak.  It is doubtful that the source of the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak will ever be determined with certainty.

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