Lawsuit on behalf of 11-year-old boy claims negligence by Taco Bell led to E. coli outbreak

Thursday, December 7th 2006, 6:21 am
By: News On 6

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) _ An 11-year-old boy's family is suing Taco Bell, claiming negligence by the restaurant chain led to an E. coli outbreak that sickened the boy and nearly four dozen others.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first from the outbreak that has been linked to Taco Bell restaurants in three northeastern states.

The chain removed scallions from all 5,800 of its restaurants Wednesday after preliminary tests linked them to the bacteria. State and federal investigators also are scrutinizing other non-meat ingredients on the Taco Bell menu, such as cheese and lettuce, as they try to pin down the source.

The boy, Tyler Vormittag, became ill after eating three tacos with cheese and lettuce at a Taco Bell in Riverhead, on Long Island, on Nov. 24, according to the lawsuit filed late Wednesday. He was hospitalized Nov. 28 and released Nov. 29, his attorney said.

``When a restaurant serves food, it is deemed to be fit for human consumption and that it does not contain any deleterious or harmful substances,'' said his attorney, Andrew Siben. ``The Taco Bell restaurant clearly breached that duty.''

The lawsuit does not seek specific monetary damages.

A Taco Bell spokeswoman said the company had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. The Irvine, Calif.-based chain is a subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc.

All 15 Taco Bell restaurants in Philadelphia voluntarily closed Wednesday following a recommendation by the city's Department of Public Health. Other Taco Bell restaurants on Long Island and in South Plainfield, N.J., were also closed Wednesday for cleaning.

``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,'' Greg Creed, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, said Wednesday.

At least 46 confirmed cases of E. coli sickness linked to Taco Bell have been reported in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and at least five people remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage.

Federal officials said late Wednesday there are possible cases in Delaware and Connecticut, as well. The Delaware Division of Public Health planned a Thursday afternoon news conference on the investigation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, said it was gathering samples of all non-meat items served in the restaurants that could carry the pathogen _ including cilantro, cheddar cheese, blended cheese, green onions, yellow onions, tomatoes and lettuce _ and planned to test them at FDA laboratories.

Investigators were focusing on a southern New Jersey warehouse that distributes food to the region's Taco Bells and a nearby produce processing plant that supplies Taco Bell restaurants in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas with green onions, shredded lettuce, regular onions, tomatoes and cilantro.

A spokesman for the processing company, Ready Pac, said Wednesday that it had cleared the plant of all raw and processed green onions, which it gets from a California grower.

``Even though the test results are not confirmed, we have taken every prudent precaution and immediately stopped production and shipments of all green onions,'' said Steve Dickstein, VP marketing for Ready Pac.

The company had not taken similar measures with the other vegetables, he said.

McLane Co., which distributes food to the region's Taco Bells, said federal investigators planned to test green onions and other non-meat items from its southern New Jersey warehouse.

California is the nation's largest supplier of green onions, but by December, as winter sets in, the vegetable is typically imported from Mexico.

Tainted green onions from Mexico were blamed for a 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A in western Pennsylvania that was also traced to a Mexican restaurant. Four people died and more than 600 people were sickened after eating the green onions at a Chi-Chi's.

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strain of E. coli that caused the infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat. The bacteria also can be found on sprouts or leafy vegetables such as spinach.

It can be spread if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.

Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 fell ill in an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged, fresh spinach grown in California.