Minn. Taco John’s CEO Offers to Pay Medical Bills for E. Coli Victims

The head of Taco John’s International offered this week to pay medical bills for customers who got ill from E. coli bacteria at three of the chain’s Mexican restaurants.

Some 76 people were sickened after eating at Taco John’s in Minnesota and Iowa in late November and early December. Health officials in Minnesota suspect tainted lettuce as the likely source of contamination.

“It’s our belief that anybody who’s been linked to these illnesses certainly deserves to have their expenses covered,” said president and chief executive officer Paul Fisherkeller, adding that the chain’s insurer is prepared to pay sick customers’ claims.

The Upper Midwest E. coli outbreak followed another unrelated spate of lettuce-related infections in the Northeast. At least 71 Taco Bell customers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware fell ill. The two taco chains aren’t related.

Like Taco Bell, Taco John’s changed produce suppliers, dropping its Midwest supplier, St. Paul, Minn.-based Bix Produce LLC as sales at its Minnesota and Iowa restaurants slumped.

But Taco Bell was quicker to reassure consumers that its food was safe, taking out full-page newspaper ads to spread that message.

Fisherkeller and other Taco John’s executives worked to win customers back a week after the public first learned of the outbreak. At a Minneapolis news conference, Fisherkeller extended sympathy to the Taco John’s E. coli victims, highlighted steps the chain is taking to prevent future outbreaks and proclaimed it safe to go back to the restaurants.

He was also scheduled to stop at Taco John’s outlets in Austin, Minn. and Cedar Falls, Iowa, two of the locations linked to the outbreak. The third was in Albert Lea, Minn. Separately, a customer filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, claiming she was sickened after eating at a Taco John’s restaurant in Waterloo, Iowa. It’s the second federal lawsuit filed so far.

Picking up medical bills for sick customers could help the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based chain of more than 400 restaurants head off lawsuits and reach settlements with injured customers faster, said Timothy Coombs, a crisis consultant based in Charleston, Ill.

“For the CEO to publicly state that they’re going to take care of the costs, that’s important,” Coombs said. “A mistake companies sometimes make is they take a legal approach.”

In food-borne illnesses, the most important step is to pinpoint the source of contamination, said Steven Fink, a crisis consultant with Lexicon Communications Corp. who’s helped chains including Jack in the Box respond to E. coli outbreaks. Once that’s done, it’s critical to show the public that their health comes first, he said.

“You absolutely need the top guy or woman out there talking to the public,” he said.

Taco John’s also got its message out Tuesday with a full-page newspaper ad, in which Fisherkeller declared the chain’s food safe, noted it had replaced a produce supplier and launched a review of its “farm to fork” food safety procedures.

“This isolated incident appears to be behind us,” Fisherkeller wrote in an open letter to customers.

Taco John’s is based in Cheyenne, Wyo., and has 430 restaurants in 26 states. There are 133 restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa.

Fisherkeller said all subsequent tests of Taco John’s food, by both the state Health Department and independent sources, have come back clean.

Taco John’s sales are down, but Fisherkeller wouldn’t reveal by how much

Health officials said the E. coli probably came from lettuce, which they suspect was contaminated in the fields where it was grown.