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Chipotle and Food Poisoning: Nearly 400 Sick!

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls on August 3, 2018

It seems people either love or hate Mexican food. Some adore it for its, bold, lasting flavors while others loathe it for these same exact attributes, but when foodborne illness outbreaks are linked to these spicy restaurants, it’s wise to grow a little wary. Chipotle Mexican Grill has had a few setbacks in the arena of food poisoning, but they were well on their way to redemption until on Monday, July 30th, they were forced to close a location in Powell, Ohio. Dozens of people were reporting illnesses after having visited the restaurant over the previous weekend. By Wednesday, August 1st, over 250 people had filled out online reports accusing Chipotle of giving them food poisoning. The number of illnesses has currently threatening to surpass 400.

According to authorities, Chipotle is not denying themselves as being responsible for the outbreak. Laurie Schalow, Chipotle spokesperson, said, “Our protocols identified a handful of illness reports at one restaurant in Powell, Ohio. We acted quickly and closed this single restaurant out of an abundance of caution. We are working with the local health department and we plan to reopen this restaurant today.”

As Schalow stated, it later reopened after health department investigations. The outbreak appeared to have no wider scope, but nevertheless, the food poisoning accusations drove the popular chain’s stock down by 9%. This came as quite a hit since the restaurant has been struggling to regain its momentum after its series of E. coli encounters and the norovirus scare from three years ago, all of which have battered the company’s reputation and finances.

According to Schalow, this was “an isolated incident” and is under careful investigation. Regardless of the incident’s isolated characteristics, hundreds of people have reported an illness due to Chipotle. Customers said that they had suffered from food poisoning, diarrhea, nausea, fever, and more after consuming varying kinds of foods from Chipotle including tacos, burrito bowls, and burritos. While the outbreak started with only a few reported cases, those numbers swiftly grew to nearly 400. While the company is willingly cooperating with the local health department, it may take a great deal of effort to restore itself to the public’s good graces.

It’s clear that Chipotle is not unaccustomed to being associated with food poisoning outbreaks, especially in recent years. They have been the cause of massive foodborne illness outbreaks, including E. Coli outbreaks, that have sickened hundreds of people across the nation. After the last major outbreak, the company’s new CEO announced that some big changes would take place in order to steer the company in the right direction. Chipotle had been reporting better-than-expected earnings, but this latest outbreak yet again calls into question the reputation of the restaurant.

What Could the Mystery Illness Be?

With the current outbreak, many worried people and the general public are wondering what dangerous pathogen caused the mysterious illnesses.  As we await further details of the investigation and test results, we at MakeFoodSafe have created a list of what potential foodborne pathogens could be at the root of these illnesses. Here are our thoughts:

  1. Norovirus. Norovirus is among the most common of all foodborne pathogens. Frequently identified as “the winter vomiting bug” or the “stomach flu,” this virus is very contagious and caught by eating contaminated food. The symptoms of Norovirus are commonly what one would expect are food poisoning: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and weakness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the majority of outbreaks related to Norovirus come from restaurants. Food from these establishments is usually contaminated by sick food service workers who touched food with their bare hands. The onset of illness for Norovirus is also fairly quick, usually within 12 – 48 hours after eating contaminated foods.

Why Norovirus Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The symptoms mentioned by the health agencies are on par with Norovirus symptoms. The onset of illness is a little shorter than typical, but should not be ruled out. Again, Norovirus is also common, so it is highly likely to be the pathogen source.

  1. Bacillus cereus. This is the least likely culprit, but is still a possibility. It is found in foods that have been left in room temperature too long. FoodSafety.gov reports that food poisoning from this bacterium has a rapid onset, usually within 30 minutes to 6 hours. Symptoms are fairly mild, like vomiting, abdominal cramps, and minor diarrhea, and usually are subsided within 24 hours. Bacillus cereus is typically found in food that has been left to sit for more than two hours.

Why Bacillus Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The symptoms are similar. Also, Bacillus is typically found in fried rice. Chipotle sells rice as part of its food products. It is likely that rice was left out too long.

  1. Staphylococcus. Staph infections have a very rapid onset, usually within 1 to 6 hours of eating food that has been contaminated by the bacteria. Unlike Norovirus, 25% of people have Staph bacteria on their hands and noses. Symptoms of a foodborne Staph infection are typically nausea and vomiting. However, in some instances, diarrhea may be present. Staph infections usually come from improperly refrigerated foods or foods that have been left out too long.

Why Staph Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The onset of illness is within the timeframes for a Staph infection. If it is a severe infection, the symptoms may also match the pattern for the infection. Depending on what is discovered about the catered food, Staph may be the culprit if it is discovered that food was left out too long.

If you experience any flu-like or food-poisoning symptoms after a dining visit to a Chipotle restaurant, be sure you report these events appropriately so that proper precautions can be made and any required investigations begun.

The majority of foodborne illnesses go unreported. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year in the United States, 31 pathogens cause 37.2 million diseases. Their study mentions that 90% of these that were foodborne in nature are caused by seven different pathogens. Norovirus is the most common of them all. The leading cause of foodborne illness deaths was from Salmonella, according to the study.

By: Abigail Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)