A suspected E. coli outbreak that began in Iowa widened in Minnesota on Tuesday, with health officials linking 14 apparent cases to Taco John's restaurants in two towns.
A spokesman for the Wyoming-based chain confirmed that two southern Minnesota restaurants get their produce from the same supplier as the Taco John's in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where nearly three dozen people developed E. coli symptoms earlier this week after dining there. The restaurants are in Albert Lea and Austin.
Those infected all ate at the three restaurants in roughly the same time period, the last few days of November and the first few days of December, said Kirk Smith, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health's food borne disease unit.
Separately Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its analysis had shown so far that "onions of any type are probably not linked to this outbreak."
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it could not confirm that scallions were the cause of the problem, as previously suspected, and that it was not ruling out any food as a possible culprit.
Meanwhile, Taco Bell Corp. launched a newspaper ad blitz and sent its president on a string of media interviews Tuesday to persuade customers that its food is safe — even as the cause of the E. coli outbreak linked to the fast-food chain remained a mystery.
In an open letter to customers published in USA Today, The New York Times and other newspapers, Taco Bell President Greg Creed said he would support the creation of a coalition of food suppliers, competitors, government and other experts to explore ways to safeguard the food supply chain and public health.
On Tuesday, all but four of Taco Bell's 86 New Jersey restaurants were.
Half of the 14 Minnesota victims ate at the Albert Lea restaurant, the other half in Austin, Smith said. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see at least a few more cases crop up in the next day or two.
Taco John's spokesman Brian Dixon identified the produce supplier for the three restaurants as St. Paul-based Bix Produce. But he stressed that the restaurant chain doesn't yet know if the produce was the source of the E. coli. The disease can also be carried by undercooked meat, and Dixon said the chain is testing samples of all types of food from the restaurants in question.
"We're still trying to pinpoint exactly what happened," Dixon said. The company may decide to switch suppliers, he said.
Bix Produce Chief Operating Officer Duane Pfleiger stressed that produce has not been implicated in the illnesses and that the investigation is ongoing.
"There is no conclusive evidence pointing toward produce or any other item that might be the cause of this," he said, adding that Bix Produce has a strong safety record.
E. coli is a common, usually harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.
It is found in the feces of humans and livestock. The germs can be spread by people if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the restroom.
Five of the Minnesota cases have been confirmed as E. coli at local hospitals, Smith said, but the Department of Health plans to make its own confirmation in each case. He said DNA testing will also be used to independently confirm that the Minnesota and Iowa contaminations came from the same source.
One of the Minnesota victims has developed kidney complications and has been hospitalized, Smith said.
In the Iowa cases, preliminary test results showed that E. coli was the likely culprit for symptoms that sickened about 40 people and sent 18 people to the hospital in late November and early December.
The restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin have remained open. Both sites threw out their entire food supplies, and Dixon said both are entirely replacing their produce stock every four hours. He said the company has also sent in a trainer to check on restaurant conditions.
The company also said it has taken steps to sanitize equipment at the restaurants in question.
Dixon said employees company-wide are being reminded of the company's "well-defined safety standards" including cooking temperatures, hand-washing and other personal health requirements.
"We're taking every possible aggressive posture we can," Dixon said. "It's sickening for us to see anybody in the public suffer in this way, especially if they got ill from eating at Taco John's."
Just a handful of people were eating at a Taco John's in St. Paul during the lunch hour Tuesday. Gary Hanson, a Taco John's regular in town on business, made a cross with his index fingers and pointed inside the restaurant when asked about the E. coli outbreak.
"That's why nobody's here," he joked. But he said he wasn't too worried, as he dug into his chicken fajitas.
"They're probably more cautious than they ever were," he said.
Federal health officials say there's still no indication that the outbreak in Minnesota and Iowa is connected to an outbreak in the Northeast that sickened 64 people who ate at Taco Bell restaurants, but they haven't ruled out a link. Scallions were initially identified as the likely source of that outbreak, but federal testing of samples turned up negative for E. coli.
The two taco chains are not affiliated with each other.