Tuesday, December 05, 2006

E-Coli Outbreak

E-Coli Outbreak
It's interesting how many people wrote to me after my Fast Food Nation articles wondering if I had stock in the movie or made other accusatory remarks that assumed I'd have no other reason to dis the fast food industry. But when your job is to make the world a healthier place, how can you not?

Case in point:

E. coli outbreak in N.J. is linked to 3 Taco Bells

Associated Press Writer

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. (AP) -- An E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 22 people - two of them seriously - was linked by health investigators Monday to three Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of E. coli also sickened more than a dozen people on Long Island, including several who ate at Taco Bell, prompting officials to ask that eight of the fast-food restaurants there be closed. It was not immediately clear if the Long Island E. coli is related to the outbreak in New Jersey.

All of the people who fell ill in New Jersey had eaten at Taco Bells between Nov. 17 and Nov. 28, authorities said. Two employees also tested positive for the bacteria. But exactly what food was contaminated was still unclear.

"We have to find the food they all had in common," said David Papi, director of health for Middlesex County.

All but four of the victims are under 18, authorities said.

Five were in the hospital Monday, including a 10-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl who were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can permanently damage the kidneys, officials said. The boy was still in serious condition, while the girl's status had improved to stable, said Stephanie Brown, the Middlesex County epidemiologist.

Twenty-two of those infected, including two restaurant employees who tested positive for E. coli but did not get sick, ate at a Taco Bell in South Plainfield; another ate at a Taco Bell in Edison, and one ate at a Taco Bell in Franklin Township, authorities said.

In a statement Monday, Taco Bell president Greg Creed said the company was working closely with health officials. The company is "very concerned about the well-being of all those who have been affected by this incident," he said.

Creed said as a precautionary measure, the company closed one New Jersey restaurant - in South Plainfield - and four in New York's Suffolk County.

The South Plainfield restaurant was closed last week, 48 hours after the first E. coli case was reported, when health officials first started to suspect the infection might have come from there.

All three New Jersey Taco Bells are owned by the same person, Papi said.

It was not until Monday that suspicion fell on two more Taco Bells in New Jersey and that news of the Suffolk County closures became widely known. Creed did not specify when the New York Taco Bells were closed.

At a news conference Monday, New Jersey health officials said they were not aware of the Long Island E. coli infections, but said they were working closely with officials in neighboring states as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State health officials also gave slightly differing numbers regarding how many people were infected and over what time period. According to Deputy State Epidemiologist Christina Tan, officials were investigating 37 cases, 25 of which were confirmed E. coli cases. Officials also said they could trace 20 of the cases back to one of three Taco Bells. The infections were reported Nov. 20-29, they said.

New Jersey Health and Senior Services Commissioner Fred M. Jacobs on Monday described the E. coli infections as "a serious outbreak," but said the threat seemed to have passed.

"There has not been an outbreak since Nov. 29, so I think that whatever happened went through already," Jacobs said.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria found in the feces of humans and livestock. However, certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.

Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach. Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill from an outbreak that was traced to packaged spinach grown in California. The bacteria also can be passed from person to person if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the dangerous E. coli strain 0157:H7 infects about 73,000 Americans a year and kills 61.

Symptoms usually show up three to four days after a person eats contaminated food, although in some cases it can be as long as eight days. Officials said anyone having symptoms should immediately contact their health care provider.


Additional reporting by Rebecca Santana in Trenton, N.J., and Frank Eltman in Garden City, N.Y.

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