Just when you thought it was safe to venture back down the produce aisle…Green onions that are suspected of containing a virulent form of E. Coli has sickened Taco Bell customers in six states. It has been determined that the contaminated onions were grown in California by one of Ventura County’s largest vegetable growers.
At least 58 cases of E. coli food poisoning have been reported in the past week, mostly in New Jersey and New York, and the “vast majority” of the people had eaten at a Taco Bell restaurant, reported federal officials. No deaths have been reported, but 48 people have been hospitalized. Taco Bell Corp. said it has conducted preliminary tests and found E. coli in green onions, although it is awaiting confirmation from more accurate tests.
Nearly 2,000 acres of green onions were harvested in California in 2005, with 21,766 tons produced at a value of more than $21 million. Most were grown in the Salinas Valley in Monterey County. Representatives of Boskovich Farms, which has been growing vegetables in the area for nearly a century, said that they grew Taco Bell’s green onions in their Oxnard fields.
“The onions were grown in our fields,” said Lindsay Martinez, director of marketing for Boskovich Farms, based in Oxnard. “We have the climate to grow them pretty much year round.” But Martinez noted that there was only a tentative link between the E. coli outbreak and the farm’s produce.
Ready Pac Produce cleaned, processed and packed the onions in its New Jersey plant. Ready Pac has tested the plant’s produce and has not detected any E. coli. At the Ready Pac plant in New Jersey, the onions were washed in a chlorine solution, rinsed, chopped into ¼-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 the produce to McLane Foodservice, Taco Bell’s food distributor in the region.
If tests confirm that green onions are the source of the outbreak, it is the second major food-poisoning epidemic in the past few months with reported links to California-grown produce. In September, about 200 people became sick and three died after eating spinach grown in the Salinas Valley contaminated with the pathogen also implicated at Taco Bell.
Federal and state officials said today that blaming green onions, Boskovich Farms or Ready Pac Produce is premature. They said there is no official evidence yet in the investigation that shows any particular food is to blame. But, as a precaution, Taco Bell has voluntarily removed green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide.
Food and Drug Administration officials said they are still investigating other possible sources at Taco Bell, including cilantro, cheese and lettuce. Meat is not the likely source because some of the patients are vegetarians.
Even if the pathogen is confirmed in the green onions, it remains unknown whether the contamination came in the restaurants, from an Oxnard field or in the New Jersey processing plant. This particular strain of E. coli is found in the guts of cattle and other livestock and it can contaminate produce during processing or in the fields through unsanitary worker practices, tainted water, runoff from pastures or wild animals.
Since 1995, 20 E. coli outbreaks from lettuce and spinach, including at least nine in the Salinas Valley, have accounted for 608 illnesses and five deaths in the United States, the FDA said.
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). They became sick between Nov. 20 and Dec. 2. Other cases are under investigation. Among the ill people, 48 were hospitalized and seven developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome.