Experts: Precooking may safeguard Taco Bell ingredients
Tuesday December 05, 2006
By GILLIAN FLACCUS
Associated Press Writer
IRVINE, Calif. (AP) Nearly 20 years ago, Taco Bell was hailed as an innovator when it began to ship precooked, pre-seasoned beef and bean fillings to its restaurants as a way to save money.
The concept was called K-minus because it reduced the need for kitchens at the individual outlets and let Taco Bell sell many of its core menu items for less than $1.
Now, as Taco Bell struggles to rebound from an E. coli outbreak at eateries in New York and New Jersey, industry experts say that type of advance preparation may have shielded the fast food giant from a more severe problem.
Health investigators were trying to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak and said the investigation will probably focus on produce instead of meat.
Precooking and prepackaging of fillings at designated plants reduce the number of people who handle the food and the opportunities for E. coli to take hold, said Randy Hiatt, president of the Costa Mesa-based restaurant consulting firm Fessel International.
The method also means the beef gets cooked twice once at the plant and again when it is reheated at the individual restaurants, reducing the risk of E. coli even further, he said.
``I'm sure they have very good controls because it's really their lifeblood. It's probably potentially more safe because it's done in a controlled environment,'' Hiatt said. ``Location by location cooking has a lot of variables to it.''
At least three dozen people have been sickened by E. coli in New Jersey and New York, and apparently all the victims had eaten at Taco Bell restaurants in the second half of November.
On Tuesday, the fast food chain announced it was reopening eight restaurants in Suffolk and Nassau counties in New York that were voluntarily closed after the outbreak began. Another restaurant in South Plainfield, N.J., was also expected to reopen.
Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Irvine-based Taco Bell, said all the food at those restaurants was discarded and equipment was sanitized.
``Our first priority is the health and safety of our customers. This is a very serious issue, and we are very concerned about the well-being of the people who've been impacted by this,'' he said.
Yum Brands Inc. is the parent company of Taco Bell, which had $6.1 billion in sales in 2005.
Bryan Chin, director of the Detection and Food Safety Center at Auburn University in Alabama, said Taco Bell's K-minus advance preparation method should have wiped out any E. coli contamination, even if meat was tainted before it was cooked.
``Since the food is processed in a processing plant, they can control parameters fairly well. Then it is recooked and reheated at the Taco Bell,'' Chin said. ``So either the processing at the plant or the processing at Taco Bell should have killed it.''
Other food industry experts, however, said the mass cooking of ingredients could also be a liability.
Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said Taco Bell's mass distribution practices mean that if just one food item is contaminated, it could be widely distributed very quickly.
``When someone makes a bad steak in Kalamazoo, it makes people sick in New Jersey and London and other places,'' she said. ``The ramifications of making a mistake are very great.''
Industry analysts said regardless of the cause, the E. coli scare would likely be a problem for Taco Bell.
``I think these things are always very, very difficult to manage through,'' said Bob Goldin, a Chicago-based food analyst at Technomic Inc. ``It's a black eye, whether it's their fault or not.''
On the Net:
Taco Bell: http://www.tacobell.com
Auburn University's Detection and Food Safety Center: http://audfs.eng.auburn.edu