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."