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California Slow To Action
On Taco Bell/Green Onion Case

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 12, 2006

It is 100% true that we cannot definitively state that green onions were the culprit that transmitted E. coli 0157:H7 to restaurant patrons. It is a fluke that we even have anything more that a vague suspicion: On Monday, December 4, 2006, a Taco Bell team, along with the Suffolk County Department of Health, went to a Taco Bell in Deer Park, New York, and both Taco Bell and the public health authorities took samples of every food, including a bag filled with 8 ounces of cut green onions.

You can read (and watch a video of) the New York Times report here.

The Health Department did its own tests and Taco Bell hired a private lab. Taco Bell’s results came back positive for E. coli, a result the authorities couldn’t confirm.

But that was enough for Taco Bell to decide to pull all green onions from its restaurants.

The State of California, though, seems to be suddenly defensive about California agriculture:

Kevin Reilly, deputy director for prevention services at the California Department of Health Services, said that despite the private test results and the company actions, federal authorities have yet to confirm which food product is responsible for the outbreak, which has now sickened 58. Until they do, state health officials will not intervene.

This seems odd. An investigation is not a finding of fault; it is an attempt to uncover the truth. In an E. coli investigation, evidence washes away with every rain, with each gust of wind. This waiting for a “confirmation” means finding the cause is less likely than if the state acted now.

The truth is we will probably never have the “confirmation” the state is looking for. The spinach/E. coli situation was unusual. Because it occurred in bagged product, many consumers still had unused portions of the bag in their refrigerators. So we could go back, grab the bags, do the tests, and get the “confirmation” that it was bagged spinach.

But, here, unless some consumers have half-eaten tacos in their refrigerators, that “confirmation” may never come.

We can understand that the state doesn’t have the manpower to run off every time someone gets a bellyache, but between New York, New Jersey and a few cases in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Utah and South Carolina, there are now almost 300 cases that are confirmed or suspected. If the number comes out anywhere near 300, it is one of the largest outbreaks on produce ever.

It is irresponsible to wait. They should have a team in the fields now seeing what it can learn.

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