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Food Safety News

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Analysis: “Restaurant A” Revealed to be Taco Bell

On Wednesday, Food Safety News editor Dan Flynn broke news of the identity of “Restaurant Chain A” as Taco Bell in the 10-state outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis that sickened at least 68 individuals in October and November 2011.

tacobellchain-350.jpgThe disclosure came from officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Acute Disease Service, who responded to a records request from Food Safety News by supplying a document implicating Taco Bell as the fast-food chain involved in the outbreak.

Sixteen Oklahomans reportedly became infected with Salmonella during the outbreak. According to the document, eight out of 12 individuals available for interviews ate at Taco Bell during the outbreak exposure window. The remaining four victims refused interviews or could not be reached.

In its January 19 outbreak report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that 60 percent of the victims reported eating at various locations of a single Mexican-style restaurant chain — Restaurant Chain A — in the week before the outbreak’s onset on Oct. 13, 2011. Outbreak investigators determined that the illnesses likely were caused by a contaminated ingredient from one of the fast-food chain’s suppliers.

Of the victims who ate at this chain, 94 percent reported eating ground beef, while 90 percent reported eating lettuce. But ground beef was ruled out as a likely source because the chain’s procedures for handling and thoroughly cooking ground beef were said to be appropriate and safe.

The CDC chose not to name Taco Bell in the case because the outbreak had already ended and the agency wanted to keep cordial relations with the chain as it cooperated with investigators. Oklahoma public health officials said they gave the CDC until Tuesday to direct them on how to respond to document requests. When the CDC did not give directions, Oklahoma released the documents.

Before and after learning the identity of “Restaurant Chain A,” Food Safety News repeatedly reached out to Taco Bell for comment. On Wednesday evening, the company released a statement to the media.

“The CDC indicated that some of the people who were ill ate at Taco Bell, while others did not. They believe that the problem likely occurred at the supplier level before it was delivered to any restaurant or food outlet. We take food quality and safety very seriously,” the statement read.

Following the CDC publication of its January 19 outbreak report, Food Safety News had asked Taco Bell and five other major Mexican-style fast food chains to confirm or deny an association with the outbreak. Taco Bell did not respond.

Taco Bell’s history of outbreaks

This is not the first outbreak in which an unidentified “Restaurant Chain A” later turned out to be Taco Bell.

In 2010, the CDC investigated two separate Salmonella outbreaks linked to a Mexican-style fast food chain, “Restaurant A,” eventually revealed as Taco Bell. Those outbreaks resulted in 155 reported illnesses, including 42 hospitalizations. In that case, the CDC adopted the same approach of nondisclosure, initially choosing not to name Taco Bell.

The CDC estimates that for every confirmed case of Salmonella, 38 more cases go unreported, suggesting that many more people were likely sickened in the 2010 and 2011 outbreaks. Typical Salmonella infections can result in diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting and fatigue lasting one to seven days.

In 2006, Taco Bell was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened at least 71 individuals, hospitalizing 53 and resulting in eight cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome. That time, the CDC was upfront in identifying Taco Bell.

According to BusinessMart, there are more than 5,800 Taco Bell franchises in the United States serving more than 2 billion meals a year.

Nondisclosure: Public health experts weigh in

In an interview with msnbc.com published Tuesday, Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the CDC, defended the nondisclosure in the latest outbreak, noting that the practice is used on a case-by-case basis but supported by a longstanding precedent of withholding names when the public no longer faces an immediate health threat.

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety undersecretary and Food Safety News contributor Dr. Richard Raymond disputed that reasoning, but said Tauxe should not be the focus of blame.

Raymond suggested that food industry lobbyists might put pressure on government agencies to not disclose names.

“Obviously, they don’t like their stores being linked to recalls,” he said. “It takes a lot of political power and clout and intestinal fortitude to fight the lobbyists.”

When asked if government agencies might fear lawsuits from companies named in outbreaks, Raymond said it was likely, but agencies that have conclusive evidence should have nothing to fear.

The problem with nondisclosure, Raymond and other public health experts said, is that government agencies cannot reasonably anticipate the consequences of withholding the information and should instead err on the side of transparency. For one, in some restaurant-related outbreaks, consumers could be storing contaminated leftovers in their freezer for weeks before reheating them, he said.

To illustrate the importance of transparency, Raymond compared food recalls to car recalls: When a car is recalled once for a bad part, most customers appreciate the company’s notification and cooperate to get the problem fixed. But if the manufacturer routinely issues recalls for faults, customers eventually become wary and decide to stop giving the manufacturer their business.

The same logic applies to foodborne illness outbreaks, Raymond said. The public understands that companies cannot prevent every outbreak, but they want to know that those responsible are working to keep the same thing from happening again. If individuals never learn who sickened them, no one gets publicly held accountable.

University of Minnesota environmental health professor Craig Hedberg, Ph.D. said that companies who do not come forward about outbreaks miss their opportunity to publicly correct their mistake. He said that companies who proactively take responsibility often regain public favor, citing the examples of Jack in the Box after the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak and Schwan’s after the 1994 Salmonella outbreak from contaminated ice cream.

“If my food company was involved in an outbreak, I would certainly want to appear to be ahead of the curve and not trying to run away from anything,” Hedberg said. “If they appear to have something to hide, it feeds public anxiety. It’s much more damaging than confronting the outbreak upfront and highlighting your response.”

During his tenure at the USDA from 2005 to 2008, Raymond worked to establish new standards for informing the public on which grocery stores were selling recalled food. Before Raymond’s changes, the agency only revealed the product name, the identifying code and the region of the country where it was sold.

“The rationale behind naming the stores was that people don’t always remember what brand they bought and don’t keep the package to see the code once they’ve opened it,” Raymond said. “If I have leftover spaghetti in the fridge with contaminated beef and then I hear about a recall, I might not remember who made the beef, but I’ll probably know what store I bought it from.”

Raymond said he hoped the FDA and CDC would amend their policies in light of public reaction to recent outbreaks.

“We tried to set a precedent with the USDA,” he said. “I don’t know why we can’t have rules and regulations for letting people know where they ate that got them sick.”

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.marlerblog.com bill marler

    I am reminded that in mid-November 1999, a cluster of children with infections caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 occurred in several states. Case-control studies found an association between illness and eating beef tacos (undercooked) at Taco Bell restaurants. A traceback investigation implicated a beef supplier; a farm investigation was not possible because of inadequate record keeping by the supplier. A total of 14 cases (perhaps as many as 21) of E. coli O157:H7 infections with matching PFGE patterns were identified. The patients resided in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Five (36 percent) were hospitalized and three (21 percent) had the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
    San Francisco media covered the story in 1999 and named Taco Bell as the source. However, the CDC in a publication noted the outbreak, but did not name the restaurant. Taco Bell also remained unnamed by the California Department of Health in a 2004 publication – a retrospective five-year look at foodborne outbreaks.
    Then, a Major Article in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Disease was published in 2004: “A Multistate Outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Infection Linked to Consumption of Beef Tacos at a Fast-Food Restaurant Chain.” And, once again the reader was left with only “a national Mexican-style fast-food restaurant chain” as the source of three customers near death experiences.
    My thought is that consumers have a right to know who sickened them specifically and the general public has the same right to have the information to make choices of where they spend their money.
    Accurate knowledge allows consumers to make informed decisions in a free market economy. Perhaps if outbreak investigators realized that their work is important and trusted by the public, they would understand that the public could be trusted with the facts.

  • http://www.marlerblog.com bill marler

    One more thing about disclosure. I wonder if public health officials would have identified the actual restaurant (McDonalds) in the below 1982 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak if the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak would have happened?
    Hemorrhagic colitis associated with a rare Escherichia coli serotype. N Engl J Med. 1983 Mar 24; 308 (12): 681-5. Riley LW, Remis RS, Helgerson SD, McGee HB, Wells JG, Davis BR, Hebert RJ, Olcott ES, Johnson LM, Hargrett NT, Blake PA, Cohen ML.
    We investigated two outbreaks of an unusual gastrointestinal illness that affected at least 47 people in Oregon and Michigan in February through March and May through June 1982. The illness was characterized by severe crampy abdominal pain, initially watery diarrhea followed by grossly bloody diarrhea, and little or no fever. It was associated with eating at restaurants belonging to the same fast-food restaurant chain in Oregon (P less than 0.005) and Michigan (P = 0.0005) and with eating any of three sandwiches containing three ingredients in common (beef patty, rehydrated onions, and pickles). Stool cultures did not yield previously recognized pathogens. However, a rare Escherichia coli serotype, O157:H7, that was not invasive or toxigenic by standard tests was isolated from 9 of 12 stools collected within four days of onset of illness in both outbreaks combined, and from a beef patty from a suspected lot of meat in Michigan. The only known previous isolation of this serotype was from a sporadic case of hemorrhagic colitis in 1975. This report describes a clinically distinctive gastrointestinal illness associated with E. coli O157:H7, apparently transmitted by undercooked meat.

  • John

    You can have cheap food, or you can have safe food. You CAN’T have BOTH.

  • Dan Cohen

    Great job, James.
    Under the trace-back rules in place, Taco Bell should be able to identify its lettuce suppliers from the dates in question and should have informed the FDA and CDC and state public health.
    In the current fast food environment, this would be a fresh-cut bulk packaged wholesale fresh-cut product, food-service fresh-cut lettuce.
    A trace-forward from those lots would identify other major and minor chains, and other kinds of users who may have exposed customers.
    There is very high probability, well over 90%, that the supplier is producing under either a CA or AZ LGMA control. FOIA or state records act requests of these two market orders could also show data or recall of lots.
    SO, the nondisclosure of the restaurant chain also includes a non-disclosure of the lettuce supplier and the range of people put at risk across the country.
    It is an outrageous dereliction from a public health perspective to leave this undisclosed.
    best
    Dan Cohen

  • DEB LEVY

    I GOT VERY SICK FROM EATING AT THE TACO BELL IN SUMMERSVILLE, WEST VA IN JULY 2011. IT WAS VERY UNPLEASANT FOR 14 DAYS AND I LOST 10LBS WHEN I COULD NOT EVEN KEEP WATER IN MY SYSTEM. MY DOCTOR DID NOT TAKE IT SERIOUSLY (TOLD ME TO TAKE IMODIUM AND USE THE ‘BRATS’ DIET). FORTUNATELY I AM A VERY HEALTHY PERSON, SO I DID NOT END UP IN THE HOSPITAL. I ALSO ONLY ATE ABOUT 3 BITES OF THE TACO AND THREW THE REST AWAY WHEN IT DIDN’T TASTE RIGHT. I DON’T EAT AT ANY FAST FOOD PLACES NOW AS A RESULT.
    I THINK PUBLIC SAFETY IN OUR FOOD SOURCE IS A PRIORITY AND IT MAKES ME MAD THAT THEY DON’T IDENTIFY THE COMPANIES. RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH WE HAD A DEADLY OUTBREAK AT THE CHI-CHI’S IN BEAVER VALLEY MALL. I BET THOSE PEOPLE WOULD LIKE TO HAVE THEIR LOVED ONES BACK….

  • Sharp

    How can we motivate these giant soulless corporations if they suffer no consequences for selling poison food to the public? No punishment means no incentive to take meaningful action to fix the problem. Will it take deaths to finally get firm action? This coddling of the mammoth fast food chains simply because they are big & powerful MUST CEASE.

  • Sara

    My husband and I ate Taco Bell last week. Within 24 hours we were so sick we ended up being admitted to the hospital. Our test results came back positive for salmonella. This was also the only thing we had both eaten together in about a week, since I was away for work. It seems to coincidental that we both got sick after eating there, with the very same symptoms, and diagnosed with a relatively uncommon ailment. Clearly, Taco Bell, whether through their supplier or their food preparation, is responsible for this. Of course, though, they don’t want to take blame for anything.

  • Sue McLeod

    The easiest way to stop corporations from selling junk food is to stop buying it. Unfortunately the average US consumer is apathetic so the likelihood of there being enough of a boycott of factory food to make a difference is highly unlikely.
    In the mean time corporate america will keep on buying congressional deaf ears and ‘we the people’ will continue being served unsafe food.