Taco Bell has been linked in an Oklahoma state government document to a recent 10-state outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis illness that appears to now be over, but which is believed to have sickened at least 68 people.
The document — which outlines the state’s investigation into the outbreak in Oklahoma last fall — states that there were 16 cases of Salmonella Enteritidis illness across five Oklahoma counties, four of which required hospitalization.
Of 12 people who were interviewed by public health investigators, 11 recalled eating out prior to the onset of their illness and eight of the 11 said they had eaten at a Taco Bell restaurant, the document said.
The document was titled “Summary of Supplemental Questionnaire Responses Specific to Taco Bell Exposure of Oklahoma Outbreak-Associated Cases Multistate Salmonella Enteritidis Outbreak Investigation November 2011-January 2012.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta last month also disclosed details about an investigation into the Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak  that said many of the people sickened recalled eating at a restaurant chain the agency would only identify as “Mexican-style, fast-food Restaurant Chain A.”
The CDC said that despite the cooperation of the restaurant chain and its suppliers, investigators had not been able to identify a specific product as the cause of the outbreak that is believed to have begun in October. It said evidence suggested that the Salmonella that contaminated food sold by “Chain A,” if any, had been introduced during manufacturing or along the supply chain before the product was delivered to the chain’ establishments.
In response to media inquiries about the outbreak investigation, officials of Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell Corp. issued the following statement:
“The CDC has stated the public health is not at any risk, and this incident is completely over. They have not identified the food source of the food-borne illness that occurred in October and November of 2011. 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.”
Wednesday, FoodSafetyNews.com, a website financed by foodborne illness litigation specialty law firm Marler Clark of Seattle, named Taco Bell as “Restaurant Chain A” based on a document it received from the Oklahoma State Department of Health Acute Disease Service.
Prior to FoodSafetyNews.com’s disclosure that Taco Bell was named in the Oklahoma public health document, well-known outbreak litigator William Marler, of Marler Clark, in his own MarlerBlog.com had for several days urged CDC and state health officials to identify Chain A, while suggesting that evidence pointed to Taco Bell’s involvement.
“Ultimately, the reason why I was pushing CDC and Taco Bell to come clean on this latest outbreak is that I think the public deserves to know, so consumers can make informed choices in these serious matters about where to spend their money,” Marler told Nation’s Restaurant News.
Marler said he has been involved in litigation with Taco Bell in the past and still represents some plaintiffs in actions against the chain with nearly 5,600 restaurants in the United States.
CDC officials earlier told Nation’s Restaurant News that because the agency is not regulatory in nature, it typically defers to state authorities related to whether or not to publicly name businesses implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks. They said the CDC does release the names of such companies in some instances, if doing so would protect the public from an ongoing health threat or was necessary to further a recall, for example.
As of Jan. 19, the CDC said, the number of ill persons identified in each state with the outbreak strain of Salmonella was as follows: Texas, 43; Oklahoma, 16; Kansas, two; and one each in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Tennessee.