(Dec. 8) Green onions are again the focus of health investigators — as well as a Ready Pac Produce Inc. processing plant — following an E. coli outbreak that caused all 5,800 Taco Bell restaurants to pull the onions in early December.
Although a majority of the green onions available in late November — when dozens of people became sick after eating at Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — are from Mexico, health officials hadn’t traced their origin as of Dec. 7.
Lindsay Martinez, director of marketing for Boskovich Farms, Oxnard, Calif., said the company provides bulk green onions for processing to third-party processor Ready Pac.
The New Jersey Health Department and Senior Services is investigating a Ready Pac plant in Florence, N.J., which processed the green onions, and a McLane Foodservice facility in Burlington, N.J., which distributed them.
“As a supplier of green onions to Taco Bell, we are currently working closely with both Taco Bell and their highly regarded regional processing company in support of the voluntary action taken by Taco Bell,” Martinez said.
Martinez said on Dec. 7 that the Food and Drug Administration had not contacted the company. She could not verify if Boskovich Farms is the exclusive supplier of green onions for Taco Bell, but did say that the green onions the company does supply come from the Oxnard area, not Mexico.
In addition to sending bulk green onions to Ready Pac and other processors, Boskovich processes them for Taco Bells in California. She wasn’t able to say if Boskovich supplies green onions to restaurants or other foodservice outlets.
Steve Dickstein, vice president of marketing for Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac, said the Florence plant processes green onions in limited production runs only for Taco Bell.
“We’re scratching our heads over this because Taco Bell requires us to take twin samples for every production run and every commodity,” Dickstein said. “We send out one sample for independent testing and retain one as a self-life sample. All of those records have come back negative.”
Dickstein said the FDA conducted a surprise inspection to the facility recently.
“They went through the plant in a routine audit, and there were no corrective actions cited,” he said. “We certainly run a very clean operation.”
He said Boskovich Farms is the exclusive supplier of green onions that Ready Pac processes for Taco Bell, but said he believes there is another supplier that Ready Pac does not process.
A 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A involving Mexican green onions in salsa led to the closing of Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant chain, and the industry is still ramping up a number of food safety initiatives triggered by an E. coli outbreak traced to spinach in September.
In the Taco Bell outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Dec. 6 that 43 people have been sickened, nine remained hospitalized and one 11-year-old boy had suffered kidney damage.
Three people died in the E. coli-tainted spinach outbreak.
The FDA has obtained samples of all nonmeat items served in Taco Bell restaurants that could carry the pathogen, including cilantro, cheddar cheese, blended cheese, green onions, yellow onions, tomatoes and lettuce.