UPDATE: Lettuce must be the E. coli source, Taco Bell says

IRVINE Calif. Statistics indicate that packaged lettuce was the “most probable” cause of the E. coli outbreak that forced 90 Taco Bells in four northeastern states to close during the last two weeks, franchisor Taco Bell Corp. said Wednesday evening during a media conference call.

But the company also indicated that it had replaced the cheese in some units with shipments from another supplier, and that beef was also indicated by statistics to be a possible source. Taco Bell said it was unlikely that cheese or beef was indeed the culprit because those ingredients undergo preparations that kill bacteria.

The company said it had replaced lettuce from a particular, unnamed supplier, but noted that it uses only 20 percent of that vendor’s output. It was not clear if the other 80 percent of the volume is sold to restaurants or to grocery stores.  Officials were asked if the same brand of lettuce had been used by Taco John’s, a rival also involved in an E. coli outbreak. But the executives said those queries should be redirected to the Food & Drug Administration.

Taco John’s did not respond to a request for information. But franchisor Taco John’s International said Wednesday that 100 of its more than 400 stores have switched to a new produce supplier.  Forty people in Iowa and Minnesota have reported symptoms of E. coli poisoning since Nov. 28, most after eating at a franchised Taco John’s unit in each state. Eighteen were hospitalized.

Health officials have confirmed that 70 people were sickened by E. coli 0157:H7 in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware during recent weeks. Taco Bell acknowledged that all but a handful had eaten in its outlets there. More than 400 people in those states reported symptoms of an E. coli infection, but not all were tested, according to news reports.

Lettuce was indicated as the culprit in the Taco Bell situation by a combination of statistical analysis and the process of elimination. Officials of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found a “statistical link” between the victims of the Taco Bell-related E. coli outbreak and the lettuce, beef and cheese used by stores in the affected four-state area, explained Taco Bell president Gregg Creed. Cheese and beef were dismissed as possibilities, he said, because the former is pasteurized and the latter is cooked. That left lettuce as the probable culprit.

Creed said the investigation has proven that the E. coli contamination is “an ingredient issue and not about the hygiene of our restaurants.” He also noted that the lettuce is shipped to stores in sealed containers.

He stressed during the conference call that Taco Bell favors the formation of a broad coalition to fight food-borne illness. The group should include competitors, regulators and suppliers, he said.