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CARROLLTON, Texas -- The source of an E.coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants that sickened an estimated 300 individuals is proving elusive, as McLane Foodservice, distributor of the green onions, and the onions themselves, have been eliminated as possible sources of the contamination.
An investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health and Environmental Services at McLane's warehouse in Burlington, N.J. found no evidence that the company improperly stored or handled food at the site, the company stated.
The review included a look at the company's sanitation, product handling, employee health and training practices during the time period where the contaminated products were received and delivered.
The investigation "did not indicate any problems with the firm's food safety operations," the Department of Health said in a written statement cited by McLane. It noted that all 15 product samples taken from the site tested preliminary negative for the strain of bacteria.
"We are extremely pleased the State of New Jersey's investigation appears to have confirmed what we at McLane already believed, namely, that any contamination in all likelihood occurred at a source other than McLane," said Tom Zatina, president of McLane. "Because all green onion products arrive to us in sealed cellophane bags inside sealed corrugated boxes, we have felt from the beginning it was highly improbable that McLane caused or contributed to any E.coli contamination."
Meanwhile, the suspected culprit, green onions -- which tested preliminary positive for the E.coli bacteria in Taco Bell's tests -- have been eliminated as the ingredient which caused the illnesses, as additional federal health officials' tests did not find E.coli in the samples of green onions, reported The Associated Press.
The investigation now turns to white onions, as health officials in New York found a sample from Taco Bell tested positive for E.coli. However, the E.coli that is present in the white onions is a different strain of bacteria than the one that has infected consumers, and has not been identified as a source of illness in the last month.
Regardless of color, officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not ruled out any ingredients as the source of the E.coli contamination. The FDA will now focus on the chain's tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, white onions and cheese, said David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "But we can switch away from green onions now. They aren't implicated," he told the Wall Street Journal.
Taco Bell's beef, lettuce and other ingredients come from McLane Foodservice's New Jersey-based distribution center, while its lettuce, tomatoes and onions are processed by Ready Pac Produce.
Despite the fact that the FDA found no E.coli in the green onions, the chain will continue to exclude them from its ingredients. "We won't be considering any changes to our decision until the FDA and CDC conclude their investigation," Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch told the AP.
"What it points out is that making sure that you don't overreact to a presumptive positive," said Acheson. "The danger is if you are wrong, there's fallout."
The CDC confirmed 64 E.coli cases in five states to date. The majority of the cases are located in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Two cases were found in Delaware and one case in South Carolina, where the consumer reportedly ate at a Pennsylvania Taco Bell.
In a move to shine up its image, Taco Bell nixed its produce supplier Ready Pac and signed on Taylor Farms, located in Salinas, Calif., reported the Los Angeles Times. That decision was based on a need to take "some proactive moves so that customers know our restaurants are safe. If we have to change suppliers to do that, we will," spokesman Will Bortz told the paper.
"Taco Bell switching to a different provider in the Northeast is no indication that this puzzle has been solved," Steve Dickstein, Ready Pac's vice president of marketing, told the Times.
"The Food and Drug Administration has not ruled out any food type, there are no conclusive test results, and the investigation continues," he added.