The Courier reported on a federal lawsuit that was settled out of court that had been brought on behalf of two of our clients who became ill after eating at Taco John’s restaurants in November 2006. They were two of about 80 people who reported illness after eating at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota in late November and early December. Lettuce tainted with a strain of the E. coli bacteria was blamed on the outbreak. The terms of the legal settlements were confidential, and the cases were formally dismissed in October.

Public health officials said food at Taco John’s restaurants in Austin and Albert Lea, Minn., and Cedar Falls and Waterloo, Iowa, were tainted. According to the FDA, 81 people became ill with E. coli infections after eating at Taco John’s, including 33 from Minnesota, 47 from Iowa, and one from Wisconsin. Twenty-six people were hospitalized with E. coli infections, and two developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious complication that can cause permanent kidney damage. In Black Hawk County, health officials found 33 people ill with E. coli infections after eating at the Cedar Falls restaurant. Fourteen were hospitalized.

I must commend executives, lawyers and insurers at Taco John’s for taking care of Taco John’s customers.  Not only did Taco John’s early on offer to pay victims’ medical bills, but it also stepped up and resolved claims and then looked to the suppliers of the contaminated lettuce for reimbursement.  To date, most restaurants refuse to do that – such as Taco Bell and Wendy’s.  Let’s see, that buys them more lawsuits and bad publicity – smart – not.

When Taco Bell offered free tacos for every American during baseball’s World Series last month, all I could do was hold my head and mutter something like: "Hasta luego, Amigos!"

The very idea of doling out fast-food tacos to millions of baseball fans should ring like a casino jackpot jingle in the corridors of a personal injury law firm like mine – or all the "wannabees" that are beginning to light up the Internet with "google ads" and plagiarized blogs.  Recently tacos seem have a food-poisoning track record right up there with Chinese-manufactured pet food.  In the past few years alone, we’ve seen outbreaks of deadly E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Listeria, Shigella and Norovirus in at least 13 states, from Washington and California to New York and Texas – all traced to restaurant tacos.

Just this year there have been taco-related outbreaks in Alabama, Illinois and Oregon.  And those are just the outbreaks scientifically traced by public health officials.  We’ll never know how many more people have been sickened without identifying a source.  Tracing the source of disease outbreaks isn’t easy.  Health officials need to detect an outbreak early, thoroughly interview sick people and find the common denominator before memories fade and evidence disappears.

And even when tacos are suspect, the specific source of the poison varies from one outbreak to the next.  In the Alabama outbreak last summer, the culprit may have been lettuce laced with E. coli.  In Illinois, it was Salmonella in the cheese.  An outbreak at Taco Bell last year in East Coast states was blamed on tainted lettuce, or as my post below says – maybe not.  Others have been tracked back to green onions, cilantro or undercooked meat.  It seems that when restaurants layer tortillas, meat, cheese, tomatoes, onions, avocado and lettuce, there are multiple opportunities to contaminate, cross-contaminate and make people sick.

Take, for example, a major outbreak of Hepatitis A in Florida in December, 2000.  Officials at the Lake County Health Department learned that seven people were sick, and five were hospitalized with Hepatitis A, all in a two-week span.  State and local officials identified the toxin and questioned each of the patients, including family members and friends who were not so sick.  Eventually, officials identified 78 people sickened in five eastern states. In the Florida case, most of the sick people had eaten at a Taco Bell restaurant in Fruitland Park.  Further inquiry narrowed the possibilities down to six menu items and eight ingredients, and only two of those items had been eaten by a majority of the sick people. Eventually, they zeroed in on the green onions as the most likely cause.  But, given the fact that nearly every menu item in a Taco Bell has nearly the same ingredients, how do you really know what ingredient was contaminated?

My point: Tacos can be dangerous.  The ingredients – meat and lettuce and green onions – come from an array of sources, are handled by so many people and are all tossed into the same products, creating a very muddy trail of evidence.  A list of outbreaks below:

Date Location Vendor Microorganism Food type
Oct 98 WA Finley School E. coli O157:H7 Taco Meal
Aug 00 TN San Antonio Salmonella Unknown
Oct 00 CA Viva Mexico Shigella Salsa
Feb 02 IL Laredo Salmonella Employee
Aug 03 TX Cheese LIsteria Cheese
Aug 03 MO Habaneros E. coli O157:H7 Salsa
Nov 03 PA Chi-Chi’s Hepatitis A Onions
Sep 05 CA La Golondrina Hepatitis A Lettuce?
Jun 06 OH La Fiesta Norovirus Employee
Nov 06 Several Taco Bell E. coli O157:H7 Lettuce?
Nov 06 Several Taco Johns E. coli O157:H7 Lettuce
Jan 07 AU Mex Express Botulism Cheese
Jan 07 OR Sergio’s Dos Norovirus Unknown
Mar 07 IL El Paso Salmonella Cheese
Jul 07 AL Little Rosie’s E. coli O157:H7 Lettuce

And there have been more – In October 2007, Tortilla Flat was the scene of a Norovirus outbreak and just a few days ago, Carniceria Y Taqueria served Salmonella-Tainted Tacos in North Carolina.  Buenos Noches.  Thanks to my friends at K-State (who bring you BARFBLOG) for providing a "bite" of the history of the "terrible tacos."

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:

I leave in the morning (a few hours away actually) to NYC in part to meet several new clients from the Topps E. coli outbreak, but also to meet with representatives of YUM Brands to try and resolve several E. coli cases stemming from the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak of 2006. Interestingly, today, YUM Brands outlined its third-quarter financials:

The domestic division of YUM Brands has been struggling. In the company’s third quarter, U.S. profit grew only 1 percent. Even worse, same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, dropped 6 percent at Taco Bell. Much of the problem rests with the Mexican fast food chain, which is still reeling from an E. coli outbreak last year and publicity related to a rat infestation in a KFC/Taco Bell New York City restaurant in February.

The company says its U.S. business is starting to turn around and sees signs of a recovery at Taco Bell. "With each month that passes, those memories tend to fade from the consumers’ minds," says Morningstar analyst John Owens.

Hopefully, we will be able to resolve all the cases without the necessity of further litigation.  There is nothing like a little litigation to help folks remember things – perhaps we can re-run the famous YouTube video shot in NYC:

No, those are not lawyers (well, I don’t think), but are the rats found in a NYC Taco Bell – remember the recent E. coli outbreak?  We are representing nearly two dozen people sickened after eating E. coli contaminated tacos at Taco Bells in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Anyway, back to Peanut Butter – Jennifer Emert from WALB News 10 and I spoke by phone about the recent recall of Con Agra Peanut Butter:

Here are today’s other major developments. A Seattle attorney today filed a class action lawsuit with more than three-thousand people who believe peanut butter made them sick, and production at the Sylvester ConAgra Foods plant is still stalled.

Seattle Attorney Bill Marler has filed a class action lawsuit against ConAgra Foods. “The calls have come in from every corner of America, several foreign countries and we even got an e-mail from a Sergeant serving in Iraq, who’d gotten the peanut butter in a care package.”

Also, last Friday I spent a pleasant hour talking with NPR correspondent Margo Adler of Justice Talking.  And camera crew from CNN  And Oregonian reporter, Alex Pulaski

All are doing stories that will air or be in print over the next few weeks.  Food safety and the rash of recent outbreaks and illnesses tied to our food supply is finally getting the attention is requires.