Bell Tolls for Employee in Taco Shell-Licking Photo

Taco Bell announces that an employee in the shell-shocking photo will be fired and says the food was "absolutely not" served to customers

Taco Bell announced that an employee seen licking a stack of taco shells at a Southern California restaurant in an image posted on Facebook will be fired.

The company announced on its web site Wednesday that the unidentified employee has been suspended, and the Ridgecrest Taco Bell franchisee is "in the process of terminating his employment." The co-worker photographer no longer works at the fast food location, according to the statement.

"We do not believe these employees harmed, or intended to harm, anyone," Taco Bell said in the statement. "But we deplore the impressions this has caused to our customers, fans, franchisees, and team members.  The behavior is unacceptable for people working in a restaurant."

The photo, taken at a restaurant in Ridgecrest (map), about 150 miles north of Los Angeles, was posted Sunday. It generated a swift response from those who saw it on Facebook.

The shells were "absolutely not" served to customers, according to Taco Bell's statement.

The restaurant currently has an "A" rating from the Kern County Public Health Services Department, indicating "good food handling practices and overall food establishment maintenance and sanitation." They were intended to be used by employees as part of training in advance of a new product -- practice shells that were then discarded in the trash.

As for the photo, it was part of an "internal" contest in which employees were encouraged to submit photos of themselves enjoying their first taste of the new product, according to the statement.

"The contest had clear guidelines about what was acceptable and unacceptable," according to the Southern California-based company's statement. "This image was clearly unacceptable. It violated the rules and spirit of the contest, and the employees never submitted it.  But an employee posted it on a personal social media page in violation of the franchisee's policies, and it emerged online in social media."

No details were provided regarding the new product. 

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