PHILADELPHIA – A nasty little bug went national Thursday, with new reports of diarrhea and other unpleasantness from New Jersey to Utah, “the vast majority” of it coming after people ate at a Taco Bell restaurant, according to the CDC.

Taco Bell eateries in Maine are among those affected.

Federal officials said a specific source of E. coli had not yet been conclusively identified through DNA analysis, but investigators continued to focus on green onions served at the fast-food chain in late November – some of them supplied by a southern California grower.

McLane Co., which distributes food to Taco Bells across the country, has said that it only sends scallions – sometimes called green onions – processed by one company to the distribution centers that supplied produce to Taco Bells linked to the outbreak.

McLane lawyer Bart McKay on Thursday said two of his company’s facilities on the East Coast – one in southern New Jersey and one in upstate New York – distributed the scallions to 450 Taco Bells in New Jersey, New York, eastern Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

“We continued to supply green onions, among other products, to the Taco Bells up until the suspension announcement by the company on Wednesday,” McKay said.

At least 58 cases have been identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in six states – more than half in New Jersey and Pennsylvania – and more people could still be stricken, as symptoms can take up to a week to appear. Including unconfirmed cases, 183 are under investigation nationwide, according to Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman Jeff Moran.

The actual number could be far higher, as epidemiologists wrestle with the hit-or-miss nature of disease sleuthing. If someone doesn’t go to the doctor, the case is never reported to the government.

Take Sharon Hornibrook, 43. She said she had the worst stomachache of her life Dec. 1, 90 minutes after eating a soft-shell taco at the Taco Bell in Montgomeryville, Pa..

“It was like someone punched you in the stomach,” she recalled. “I literally could not even get off the couch.”

Three hours later she felt better, so she did not visit her physician to get a diagnosis.

The elderly and young children are most at risk of serious complications, including a form of kidney failure that has stricken seven people so far.

The 434 Taco Bells in New York, New Jersey and Delaware get their green onions from the McLane Co. distribution center in Burlington Township, Pa., as do some additional restaurants in Pennsylvania.

McLane gets the onions from a Florence, N.J.-based processing facility operated by Ready Pac, of Irwindale, Calif., which in turn buys the vegetables from California-based Boskovich Farms, said Ready Pac spokesman Steven Dickstein.

He said no conclusive link has been made between the illnesses and Ready Pac’s green onions, but said the company had stopped producing and shipping that vegetable as a precaution. He said the Florence facility, a sprawling beige warehouse with 1,000 employees, subjects its onions to multiple washings before they are cut and bagged.

“We’re scratching our heads about this one,” Dickstein said. “We run a very clean facility.”

But washing is not a magic bullet, especially with a tenacious organism such as E. coli, according to Luke LaBorde, an associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University.

One washing reduces concentrations of the bacteria by 100 to 1,000 times, but a speck of manure might contain 1 million cells, he said.

The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

It takes as little as 10 cells of the pathogenic strain of E. coli to make a person sick, LaBorde said.

After washing, he said, “You still have plenty left over.”

Green onions grow in the ground, so they could be exposed to bacteria in manure fertilizer, from agricultural runoff, or if an animal wanders nearby, he said. And because onions have many layers and rough texture, it’s harder to get them clean.

“If you look at a leaf under a powerful microscope, it would look like the Grand Canyon. And a bacterium would be like a hiker at the bottom of the Canyon,” LaBorde said. “If something gets inside one of those layers, it’s awfully hard to get it out.”

The best solutions, he said, are preventative methods such as tightening processing standards and making sure farms aren’t in the path of animal waste.

Taco Bell’s parent, Yum! Brands Inc., of Louisville, Ky., also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver’s. But Taco Bells are the only restaurants that use green onions, company spokesman Rob Poetsch said.

The company has removed green onions from its approximately 5,800 restaurants nationwide; dozens of stores in this region have thrown out all their food and sanitized their kitchens at the urging of health officials.

Locally, cases have been linked to Taco Bells in Philadelphia, Levittown, Gilbertsville, Cherry Hill, Wilmington and the Oxford Valley Mall.

Some restaurants are reporting sharp declines in business. Hornibrook, for one, said her illness will keep her away from Taco Bells “for a long time.”

LaBorde, the Penn State professor, also said he doesn’t eat at Taco Bells – but for a different reason:

“My stomach outgrew it.”

But that doesn’t mean he’ll avoid onions and other greens such as spinach, which was implicated in an E. coli outbreak earlier this year.

“You’ve got to live your life,” he said. “You don’t want people to stop eating fresh foods and vegetables.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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