- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell restaurants left the fast-food chain with a major damage control challenge yesterday: How can it reassure customers its food is safe even as the suspected cause of the outbreak remained unconfirmed?

The outbreak has left more than four dozen people sick in at least three states. Taco Bell ordered the removal of green onions from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide Wednesday after testing by an independent lab suggested the bacteria may have come from scallions.

Analysts said the Mexican-style restaurant chain is likely to see sales decline in the short term.

“You’ve got a crisis of confidence right now,” said Michael Sitrick, a crisis management specialist. “What they need to do to bring people back in the stores is to assure them that what happened in the past cannot happen in the future.”

Taco Bell, an Irvine, Calif., unit of Yum Brands Inc., told customers that in addition to getting rid of all its green onions, it sanitized the affected restaurants and set up a toll-free number for people to call with concerns.

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 persons remained hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy in stable condition with kidney damage. Federal officials said there are possible cases in Delaware and Connecticut, as well.

Paul Argenti, a business professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said Taco Bell appeared to be doing a good job handling the problem.

“When you’re in the middle of it, give people any information that you know, as much as possible,” he said. “Try to be honest and open and transparent.”

Mr. Argenti said he thinks a television ad campaign to reassure customers is not necessary. Taco Bell has a loyal customer base that “will be looking for a reason to go back,” he said. “Within six months, everything rights itself.”

Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said the chain is preoccupied with the investigation and does not plan a major publicity effort. The restaurant is working as closely as possible with authorities “to find the root cause of this,” he said.

Also yesterday, all 14 Taco Bell restaurants in Delaware closed for cleaning after a 15-year-old girl who ate at a Taco Bell in New Jersey was hospitalized.

Some loyal customers seemed unconcerned about the outbreak.

“I don’t care. I’ve been eating at Taco Bell my whole life,” said Josh Dowiak, 20, of Philadelphia, as devoured a meal dripping with cheese behind a Taco Bell in Glassboro, N.J.

But his co-worker, a fellow college student, expressed less gusto for his lunch after learning about the outbreak. “I didn’t know about it. Otherwise I don’t know if we would have come here,” said Dale Gadnorsa, 23, also of Philadelphia.

Dr. Douglas Archer, associate dean for research at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, said throwing out more than the scallions would be premature.

“If nothing’s pointing to anything else, where would you stop if you started down that path?” he said. “Taco Bell has been around for a long, long time, and they’ve served billions and billions safely.”

Ready Pac Produce of Irwindale, Calif. — which washed, chopped and packed the green onions suspected in the outbreak — said it bought its scallions from a California grower. It was not immediately clear where in California the green onions were grown.

This is the second E. coli scare to affect Ready Pac in the past four months.

In September, spinach with the Ready Pac label was among dozens of brands pulled from the shelves before federal authorities finally traced the nationwide E. coli outbreak to another company’s California processing plant.

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