Lettuce suspected as source of E. coli in Minnesota and Iowaby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Department of Health says an outbreak of E. coli linked to Taco John's restaurants in southern Minnesota matches the genetic fingerprint of some three dozen cases in Iowa, also associated with a Taco John's restaurant. Health officials also raised Minnesota's illnesses count Wednesday to 27 cases.
St.Paul, Minn. — The health department says evidence so far suggests that lettuce is the most likely source for the E. Coli outbreak. But the department says more testing is needed to confirm that suspicion. Health officials are working with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on the case.
Dairy and Food Inspection Director Kevin Elfering says investigators thought it was unlikely that all three Taco John's locations in Minnesota and Iowa would have under-cooked their meat. They have been looking mainly at produce for the source of the outbreak. He says they focused in on lettuce through a process of elimination.
"We've never had an outbreak that I'm aware of with E.coli in cheese. We have with tomatoes and with lettuce. So I think we kind of focused a little bit more on those as well as cilantro, because it certainly could have been there too."
Those suspicions lead agriculture investigators to Bix Produce, a St. Paul-based company that supplied lettuce and cilantro to both Taco John's stores in Minnesota and the store in Iowa. Elfering says investigators didn't find E.coli at the plant, but that doesn't mean the contaminated product didn't come through the plant.
"The likelihood of where this contamination would have occurred would have not been at that facility. It would have very likely occurred at the farm where the lettuce was grown or whatever other commodity is grown."
The agriculture department has asked Bix to provide more information about the source of its lettuce and cilantro. Bix spokesman John Austin says the company turned over its production records from November 11th through December 2nd. He says all of the lettuce came from farms in California.
On Wednesday, Taco John's announced it has suspended its relationship with Bix Produce and its distributor. Austin says Bix understands the restaurant's decision.
"Obviously, we're disappointed. We've had a very good and beneficial and safe partnership with Taco John's for more than a decade. We view today's development as a suspension in that relationship. They remain a valued customer of ours and we'll do everything we can to support them in this situation," he said.
Taco John's spokesman Brian Dixon says the suspension may be temporary.
"This is purely a very aggressive and pre-emptive activity to make sure that we're doing everything we possibly can to provide food safety. There is no implication. There is no suspicion. There's no trace at this point that any of these very isolated illnesses trace to any of our suppliers. But we just want to take that issue kind of off the table at this point," he said.
The Minnesota Department of Health says the Minnesota and Iowa cases do not match E.coli cases reported in the Northeastern United States associated with Taco Bell restaurants.
- All Things Considered, 12/13/2006, 5:50 p.m.