Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

California Department of Health Environmental Investigation of E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeastern States in 2006 – Two California Lettuce Growers Possibly Implicated

We were provided today with the report prepared by “The California Food Emergency Response Team (CalFERT).” The “Executive Summary” in part reads:

On December 13, 2006 the Office of Emergency Operations of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted both the San Francisco District Office and the Emergency Response Unit of the California Department of Public Health Food and Drug Branch (FDB) of an emerging outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 illness associated with eating at Taco Bell restaurants and the identification of iceberg lettuce as the most likely food vehicle.

Interestingly, the CDC in its report posted on its website on December 14, 2006 seems to link lettuce only slightly more that other ingredients found in Taco Bells:

CDC is working with state and local health officials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the restaurant chain to determine what food caused the outbreak. These investigations include an ongoing investigation that involves interviews of ill and well Taco Bell restaurant patrons about what food items they consumed. These food items include a variety of different ingredients…. Public health investigators have identified a few ingredients that were consumed more often by ill persons than well persons and were statistically linked with illness: lettuce, cheddar cheese, and ground beef…. Evaluation of all these data indicates that shredded lettuce consumed at Taco Bell restaurants in the northeastern United States was the most likely source of the outbreak….

The CalFERT Report continues:

FDA conducted traceback investigations from four Taco Bell restaurants in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. These restaurants were selected as representative of the Taco Bell restaurants implicated by public health officials. All four restaurants received shipments of commingled shredded lettuce that originated from both Tanimura & Antle, Inc. (T&A) and Garcia and Church Farms (C&C, shipping as Church Brothers, LLC) in Huron, CA. At the time of the initial farm investigation, 13 T&A fields were identified by FDA as possible sources of lettuce served at implicated restaurants during the time period between October 12, 2006 and December 4, 2006. Subsequently, FDA identified one field (of the original 13) owned by T&A and three fields farmed by G&C as most likely to have supplied suspect lettuce during the time period of exposure at the four restaurants in the traceback (between November 15, 2006 and December 2, 2006). CalFERT investigators reviewed documents supplied by Taco Bell Corporation, Ready Pac Produce, Inc. (a processor), and the implicated growers and determined that two additional fields (from the original 13 T&A fields) supplied lettuce during this time period to the four restaurants. Farm investigations involved 16 fields, with a focus on the six fields identified as most likely to have supplied the implicated lettuce.

The traceback to the the Tanimura & Antle fields as well as those of Garcia and Church Farms did not find E. coli O157:H7 in the implicated fields.  This in combination with the CDC’s finding that:

Public health investigators have identified a few ingredients that were consumed more often by ill persons than well persons and were statistically linked with illness: lettuce, cheddar cheese, and ground beef…. Evaluation of all these data indicates that shredded lettuce consumed at Taco Bell restaurants in the northeastern United States was the most likely source of the outbreak….

Makes me wonder if lettuce really is the actual source or vector of the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak.   So far we have resolved all but one of our client’s cases stemming from this outbreak.  See full CalFERT Report here: