Sunday, December 10, 2006

E.Coli in Green Onions

If we get out of the house, there is no guarantee that we would come back alive! Pessimistic, isn’t it? But looking at the news reports, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Few days ago, Taco Bell ordered green onions removed from its 5,800 U.S. restaurants after tests suggested they may be responsible for the E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least three dozen people in three states. The fast-food chain said preliminary testing by an independent lab found three samples of green onions appeared to have a dangerous strain of the bacteria.

"In an abundance of caution, we've decided to pull all green onions from our restaurants until we know conclusively whether they are the cause of the E. coli outbreak," said Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell. The company wouldn't immediately identify the supplier of the scallions, so it was unclear whether contaminated green onions reached other restaurants or supermarkets.

Tainted green onions from Mexico were blamed for a 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A in western Pennsylvania that was also traced to a Mexican restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 people were sickened after eating the green onions at a Chi-Chi's.

California is the nation's largest supplier of green onions. But by December, as winter sets in, the vegetable is often imported from Mexico.

The Taco Bell chain reopened restaurants linked to the outbreak on New York's Long Island after the outlets were sanitized. And two of three New Jersey Taco Bells implicated have also reopened, with authorities awaiting test results on customers from the third place. The fast-food chain closed nine outlets in suburban Philadelphia after health officials reported four people falling ill from E. coli.

McLane Co., which distributes food to the region's Taco Bells, said federal investigators planned to test green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce from its southern New Jersey warehouse.

Nine people remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage. New Jersey's health commissioner has said the most recent case of E. coli was reported Nov. 29, so the danger of infection appears to have passed.

E. coli is found in the feces of humans and livestock. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach. Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill in an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged, fresh spinach grown in California.

If you suspect that the meat might have E-coli, you may try to cook it very well. But, with the vegetables, we won’t suspect a thing, well… until now. Fruits and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry or eggs. Overall, produce accounts for 12% of food –borne illnesses and 6% of the outbreaks, up from 1% of the illnesses and 0.7% of the outbreaks since 1970s, according to the data from CDC.

Both the government and food industry have identified five vegetables that are particularly problematic: Tomatoes, Melons (especially cantaloupes), Lettuce, Sprouts and Green onions.

Update on Dec 13th: CDC thinks that the Lettuce was the culprit in Taco Bell outbreak, not the green onions.

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