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Probe Of E. Coli Mystery Goes On

All but four of Taco Bell's 86 New Jersey restaurants were back in business Tuesday even as the fast-food chain and health officials across the country sought what caused an outbreak of E. coli that sickened scores of customers in four states.

The four restaurants — three in Union County and one in Salem County — remained closed because they were awaiting deliveries of new food after having discarded all their old foodstocks, Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz said.

"All they're doing is waiting for deliveries, and then they'll be open as well," he said.

Taco Bells in Hillside, Union and Springfield remained closed Tuesday, along with one in Pennsville in Salem County.

Two other restaurants in Delaware were also awaiting restocking, Bortz said.

All Taco Bell restaurants in New York remained open.

The reopening in New Jersey occurred even as federal health officials acknowledge they do not know what caused the outbreak of the intestinal illness in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. A person from South Carolina who developed the illness was determined to have eaten at a Taco Bell in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Minnesota health officials are linking at least seven suspected cases of E. coli to Taco John's restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin. Preliminary tests showed several of the patients tested positive for E. coli, but the state was awaiting final confirmation. Kirk Smith, supervisor of the foodborne disease unit at the Minnesota Department of Health, said four of the patients ate at the Taco John's in Albert Lea and three at the one in Austin.

"Probably more before it's all over," Smith said.

Green onions, or scallions, initially were thought to have been to blame for the outbreak, although federal testing has failed to confirm that.

Nonetheless, "out of an abundance of caution," Taco Bell president Greg Creed said, the company has switched its produce supplier from Ready Pac of Irwindale, Calif., which has a processing center in Florence, N.J., to Taylor Farms of Salinas, Calif.

As of Monday, the state health department was investigating 73 suspected or confirmed cases of E. coli in New Jersey. Updated figures were not immediately available Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., along with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Robert Menendez, D-N.J. — called on the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a joint task force to examine the outbreak and recommend changes in laws and regulations to prevent contamination of food.