SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. (AP) _ Taco Bell ordered the removal of green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide Wednesday after tests suggested they might be responsible for the E. coli outbreak that 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 harsh strain of the bacteria.
Taco Bell said that the tests are not conclusive, but that it immediately notified health authorities and its restaurants while it awaits a final analysis.
``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 Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell.
A message left with the company on where the green onions came from was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Taco Bell established a telephone number, 1-800-TACO BELL, for those with concerns about the outbreak.
The chain, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., reopened restaurants linked to the outbreak on New York's Long Island after the eateries were sanitized. But it closed nine outlets in suburban Philadelphia after health officials reported an E. coli outbreak that sickened four people there.
Meanwhile, the company that distributes food to the region's Taco Bells said federal investigators planned to test five produce items _ green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce _ from its southern New Jersey warehouse.
Health officials have not yet been able to pinpoint the source of the bacteria that have sickened at least three dozen people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nine people remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage.
An outbreak of hepatitis A in 2003 in western Pennsylvania was linked to tainted green onions from Mexico served at a Chi-Chi's restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 people were sickened.
Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill from an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged, fresh spinach grown in California.
On Tuesday, Taco Bell representatives and state and federal health inspectors visited a food distribution center in Burlington, N.J., that supplied the Long Island and New Jersey restaurants patronized by people who were sickened.
Texas-based McLane Co., which owns the distribution center, selected the produce items for federal investigators to test Wednesday, said Bart McKay, a lawyer for the company.
McKay said the federal investigators were to pick up samples of green onions, regular onions, cilantro, tomatoes and lettuce. No meat samples were requested, he said.
``By all appearances, the focus seems to be on one or more produce supplies,'' McKay said.
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. The germs can be spread by people if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.
New Jersey's health commissioner has said the most recent case of E. coli was reported Nov. 29, so the danger of infection might have passed.
Two of the New Jersey restaurants implicated were inspected and remained open. The third, in South Plainfield, remained closed Wednesday morning. Health officials in that restaurant's county said Wednesday they were inspecting food that one still-hospitalized victim had saved, but that tests would not be available until later in the week.
Pennsylvania officials were working to determine if the outbreak there was linked to the New York and New Jersey cases. Three of those who fell ill at the end of November had eaten at a Taco Bell, state Health Department spokesman Troy Thompson said. Two were hospitalized and released.
The nine Taco Bell restaurants located in suburban Philadelphia were voluntarily closing as a precaution, the Montgomery County health department said.
In New York, Irene Abbad stopped at a Taco Bell on Long Island on Tuesday, but she was afraid to eat the food and ordered only a soft drink.
After hearing about the outbreak, she called her son, who she said is a frequent Taco Bell customer. ``I said, `Don't eat Taco Bell for a while.'''
E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.