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All but 30 Taco Bells reopened after E. coli outbreak

Story Highlights

•Most closed Taco Bells reopen
• Senators call for joint task force to determine the outbreak's cause
• Health officials unable to confirm green onions as outbreak source
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DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- Taco Bell reopened most of the more than 90 restaurants that it closed in the Northeast following an E. coli outbreak that sickened as many as 67 people, a company spokesman told CNN Tuesday.

Will Bortz said 30 restaurants -- four in New Jersey, two in Delaware and 24 in Pennsylvania -- remained closed. The New Jersey and Delaware restaurants should reopen Wednesday, he said. Taco Bell is working with the local health departments to reopen the Pennsylvania stores, he said.

But absent now from the 5,800 Taco Bells across the country are green onions, which were initially blamed for the outbreak. However, further testing on samples of green onions at the affected restaurants has not turned up any evidence of E. coli, and the search goes on for the source of the infections. (Watch how the government is trying to improve food safety. Video )

Four Democratic senators, meanwhile, called on federal agencies to launch a joint task force aimed at uncovering the real cause of the sickness. In a letter to the heads of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the senators -- Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey -- said the task force would "report to Congress and the public on the cause of these incidents and recommend changes in laws and regulations to protect American's food and health."

The CDC and state and local health officials are still interviewing those sickened to determine exactly what they ate and when to find the culprit.

But company president Greg Creed reassured Taco Bell fans that all their food is safe.

"We withdrew green onions from our restaurants but we also took the extra precaution to change our produce supplier in the Northeast," he told CNN's "American Morning."

"We've taken all of those steps to ensure that the food is safe to eat at Taco Bell," Creed added.

Workers also removed all food from the affected restaurants and re-sanitized everything, he said.

Creed said that to prevent such an outbreak from occurring again, his restaurant chain, owned by Yum Brands, would lead an industry-wide coalition to examine the safety of the produce food chain.

"We've got to put in place even greater procedures to insure the safety of the food chain," he said.

Separately, white onions at a Taco Bell in Hempstead, New York, tested positive for E. coli on Monday, said New York Health Department spokesman Marc Carey, but it was not the same strain as the E. coli involved in the outbreak.

The white onion bag was open and the contamination could have happened on site, Carey said.

Meanwhile, a new outbreak of E. coli -- apparently connected to a different taco chain -- has shown up in Iowa.

Kevin Teale of the Iowa Department of Health told CNN that approximately 40 people have reported symptoms consistent with E. coli, and 11 to 15 people have been hospitalized. The first illness was reported to the Black Hawk County Health Department on Nov. 28, and the department has not seen any new cases since last week.

The Associated Press has reported that those people became ill after eating at a Taco Johns restaurant in Cedar Falls.

"As a precaution, all food that was being used in the restaurant was taken out of production and replaced with new food," said Taco John's president and CEO, Paul Fisherkeller.

Escherichia coli bacteria are found in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. Most E. coli infections are associated with undercooked meat that has come in contact with animal feces.

But the bacteria can also show up on leafy vegetables such as spinach and lettuce.

Typically the bacteria are harmless, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, kidney failure, bloody diarrhea, blindness, paralysis and even death.

Health officials say they are unable to confirm green onions as the source of the E. coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell.


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