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Reports, lawsuit implicate Taco Bell in salmonella outbreak

Chain would not comment on allegations, but asserted food is safe

Taco Bell said this week that its food is safe to eat, but it declined to comment on reports that it was implicated in two multistate salmonella outbreaks that have sickened at least 155 people, including a Kentucky woman who is suing the fast-food chain’s parent Yum! Brands Inc.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 42 people had been hospitalized as of Aug. 1 in connection with the outbreaks in 21 states caused by the rare Baildon and Hartford strains of salmonella. The CDC also noted that the outbreaks appear to have subsided.

Individuals stricken in the salmonella outbreaks reported eating at 35 different locations operated by a single, unnamed restaurant chain, according to the CDC, which noted that no single branch of that chain was associated with illnesses caused by both salmonella strains.

“We take food safety very seriously and our food is perfectly safe to eat so our customers have absolutely no cause for concern,” Anna Ohki, chief quality assurance officer for Taco Bell Corp., said in a statement provided by the Irvine, Calif.-based operator and franchisor of nearly 5,600 restaurants.

Taco Bell’s statement followed reports by some news organizations and bloggers that Taco Bell was the “Mexican-style, fast-food Restaurant Chain A” linked to the outbreaks by CDC officials in public statements.

The CDC has declined to publicly identify “Chain A,” but said that the chain and its suppliers have been cooperative in the investigation, which found that a majority of the salmonella victims interviewed reported eating at a single chain’s restaurants a week before falling ill.

William E. Keene, a senior epidemiologist with Oregon’s Public Health Division, confirmed Monday that his agency has spoken with Taco Bell about the Baildon outbreak and that federal officials have commented to him about Taco Bell’s cooperation in that investigation and the look into the salmonella Hartford matter.

One of the victims, Jo Ann Smith, filed a lawsuit Friday against Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands, saying she was sickened by salmonella Hartford to the point of requiring hospitalization after eating at a Taco Bell in Frankfort, Ky., on May 24.

Smith’s suit was filed in Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort by the Frank Jenkins Law Office of Lexington, Ky., and the Marler Clark LLP law firm of Seattle. The suit seeks compensation for unspecified damages, including Smith’s lost wages and medical expenses, which resulted from Yum Brands’ alleged negligence in selling food that made Smith ill.

Epidemiologic studies comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons were conducted for both of the multistate outbreaks, the CDC explained.

“In each study, analysis indicates that eating at a Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain, Restaurant Chain A, is associated with some illnesses,” CDC officials wrote. However, they added, “Among persons eating at Restaurant Chain A, no specific food item or ingredient was found to be associated with illness for either outbreak.”

Oregon epidemiologist Keene noted that while no specific menu items or food ingredients have been positively identified as the causes of the two salmonella outbreaks, the investigation has focused on ingredients that are used without a heat-related or other type of pathogen “kill step,” such as fresh produce and cheese.

Along those lines, the CDC noted that product traceback efforts by that agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration resulted in no conclusive findings.

“As with previous outbreaks in which contaminated produce may be the factor, produce tracebacks present substantial challenges because of the short shelf life of the product and the industry's co-mingling of product from multiple sources,” the CDC said.

The CDC added that while “neither outbreak appears to be ongoing, indicating no continued risk of infection from this source, CDC and its public health partners are continuing their efforts to identify the specific contaminated product or products that caused illness and will update the public on the progress of this investigation as information becomes available.”

The CDC said cases of illness from both salmonella strains were confirmed in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Additional Baildon strain illnesses were confirmed in Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, and additional Hartford strain illnesses were confirmed in Colorado, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, according to the CDC.

In all, 75 cases of related salmonella Hartford illness were confirmed between April 1 and Aug. 1, the CDC said, with the greatest concentration of those illnesses found in Kentucky, with 23 cases, Ohio, with 19 cases, and Indiana, with 11 cases. Of the 80 cases of associated Salmonella Baildon illness confirmed between May 1 and Aug. 1, the highest concentrations were found in Wisconsin, with 22 cases, Illinois, with 20 cases, and Kentucky, New Jersey and Ohio, each with six cases, CDC data showed.

Click here for CDC latest update on the investigation and maps showing the number of confirmed salmonella cases by state.

Contact Alan Liddle at [email protected].

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