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It’s Not Scallions, It’s Shredded Lettuce — They Think, Maybe

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 14, 2006

The Taco Bell situation remained in the news as the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement:

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.

By comparing foods consumed by ill and well persons, investigators can show statistical links between illness and consumption of particular food 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. This analysis also indicates that onions of any type are not linked to this outbreak.

The investigators have also gathered additional information about the locations of involved restaurants, the patterns of distribution of food ingredients, and the characteristics and preparation of food ingredients. 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.

Because multiple Taco Bell restaurants were involved during the same time period, contamination of lettuce likely occurred before reaching the restaurants. Health officials and the restaurant chain are working collaboratively to learn more about the shredded lettuce to determine how it may have become contaminated.

So their best guess now is shredded lettuce, meaning the poor guys at Boskovich Farms were implicated for nothing. They have been a class act throughout the situation.

The Pundit, though, is not so certain the CDC is correct on its calling it lettuce. At retail, items are sold discretely, and consumers, in general, can be expected to remember what they bought. At Taco Bell, you can order many things on the menu that are made from the same ingredients. In addition, consumers are less likely to remember an item such as scallions, which are a very minor part of most dishes.

Remember the CDC’s survey methodology had them implicating organic spinach and many other brands and processors of spinach for weeks after the start of the spinach/E. coli situation. Our confidence in its ability to detect between tacos, salads and burritos, all containing many of the same items, is not very high.

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