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Urgh. Another Chipotle Outbreak

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls on August 5, 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 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, with over 700 claimed illnesses.

The media has reported that “customers said they suffered from food poisoning and diarrhea after eating dishes including tacos and burrito bowls at the Powell, Ohio restaurant.”

Are we about to hear the same story all over again?

As you may remember, in 2015, the Chipotle was linked to a large outbreak of illnesses of the same strain of E. coli across several restaurants in 11 states. The outbreak (and others in the same timeframe) ended without identifying the source of the contamination or any particular food item at cause. Although the media reported in February of 2016 that it was officially safe to eat at Chipotle again, it has taken years for the restaurant chain to bounce back – as well as lures of a new loyalty program, free food, a new CEO, a new food safety program, new food items, and more. Meanwhile, the company’s reputation and stock prices have been on the mend.

At this time, the story appears to continue to follow the pattern of the previous outbreaks – there is still no confirmed source of contamination or food item responsible for the illnesses.

According to authorities, Chipotle appears to not be 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, the restaurant location 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 scares 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.

We are happy to see that Chipotle is not outright blaming its employees, as it has done in past outbreaks. Maybe they will finally listen to the public’s outcry demanding transparency as opposed to just hoping the hype will go away?

Even daily stock traders have agreed that, as more details come to light, transparency would be a good idea. “If this story gains traction, it might have more serious implications for the stock. It certainly, at this point, is a negative. I think it is something the CEO should address,” Maxim Group analyst Stephen Anderson said to Reuters this week.

Lawsuits a Plenty?

Due to the outbreak, Chipotle is now facing multiple lawsuits. A class-action lawsuit has been filed. This customer reportedly got sick after consuming tacos from the Powell location on July 29th. Additionally, a man who claims to have suffered from food poisoning after eating at the Chipotle location in question files a separate lawsuit against the specific restaurant. The latter case is seeking $25,000 in damages.

Number of Linked Illnesses Still Pending

Health department officials have also been busy, interviewing over 200 people who reported symptoms aligned with food poisoning. As of Friday, August 3rd, the investigation was ongoing. Stephanie DeGenaro, the director of the food protection public safety unit for the Delaware General Health District commented to the press, “All of those samples will be taken to the Ohio Department of Health lab for testing. And then once we have the results back we’ll have some evidence of what pathogen maybe be causing the illnesses and where it came from.”

As the investigation continues, the health department hopes to put a hard number on the confirmed illnesses to the outbreak. “It’s hard to say how many people at this point,” Traci Whittaker with the Delaware General Health District told Newsweek. It’s hard to know because it’s “just the infant stage of the investigation,” she said. Even though there’s no definite number yet, Whittaker told the media that she puts the estimate somewhere in the dozens.

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 and norovirus 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.

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.

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