Currently, one of the most significant, ongoing food safety concerns in the United States is foodborne illness. With 24/7 access to news and social media, people quickly grew concerned about an outbreak at one of the nation’s most prominent fast food restaurants, Chipotle Mexican Grill (commonly known as “Chipotle”).

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a multinational fast food chain that specializes in the preparation and serving of burritos and tacos. Operating in the United States, Canada, Germany and France, Chipotle is a public company with over 2,000 locations employing nearly 50,000 workers. In 2015, the company reported revenues of $4.5 billion and a profit of nearly $500 million.

The Background of the Chipotle Outbreaks

chipotle burrito bowl
Image courtesy Frank Farm | Flickr

According to various sources, July of 2015 was the beginning of the Chipotle outbreak. Those affected ate contaminated food that contained E. coli, a large and diverse group of bacteria that can cause foodborne illness (food poisoning).

The Oregonian, a daily newspaper based in Portland Oregon, reported an E. coli outbreak that was not widely publicized in which five people became infected with the O157:H7 strain of the bacteria. The illnesses were ultimately traced to a single Chipotle location in Seattle, Washington. E. coli food poisoning symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, fever and vomiting.

In August of 2015, Ventura county health inspectors cited numerous food safety violations at a Simi Valley, California Chipotle location where at least 80 customers and 18 employees became ill. In subsequent (and ongoing) litigation, a federal class action lawsuit alleges negligence on the part of Chipotle, claiming that an ill kitchen manager was allowed to continue working despite other employees’ complaints. The claims also suggest that the number of known victims is much higher, around 230 people.

Health officials and investigators state that food contamination caused by norovirus spurred the second outbreak. Norovirus is a type of viral gastroenteritis that can potentially induce various symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting.

Around the same time period, a Salmonella outbreak was confirmed that affected 17 Chipotle restaurants in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. Subsequent investigations discovered that contaminated tomatoes were the cause of the outbreak. Eventually, the total number of people sickened by Salmonella increased to 64. Salmonella food poisoning generally causes symptoms such nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, chills, fever, headache and blood in the stool.

Two additional E. coli outbreaks occurred in October and November of 2015. The original incident was initially thought to involve Chipotle locations throughout the states of Washington and Oregon. As a result of an epidemiologic investigation, the company temporarily shuttered 43 stores combined across the two states.

The investigation ultimately revealed that the E. coli bacterium was responsible for the outbreak. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 40 known cases and 12 hospitalizations. While health authorities were ultimately unable to trace a source, it is believed to have been contaminated fresh produce.

Later on in the investigation, it was discovered that at least 52 people had become ill while 20 required hospitalization. Also, the number of states affected increased from two to nine. The extent of the outbreak, along with numerous internal corporate failures, eventually resulted in Chipotle shares dropping over one-tenth of their value.

The CDC reported an additional outbreak of E. coli in November, 2015. Five people in Chipotle restaurants located in Kansas and Oklahoma became ill from a different strain of the bacteria, formally known as E. coli O26. To date, food scientists are awaiting results of a genome sequencing analysis to determine if the outbreak originated from the same or a similar source. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is assisting in the effort and seeking to determine if the earlier cases on Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere proliferated as a result of contamination that occurred at some point in the food supply chain cycle.

Outcomes and Consequences for Chipotle

Image courtesy Aranami | Flickr

Perhaps the most damaging result of the numerous and widespread food contamination cases, aside from those that were stricken with food poisoning, are the adverse effects such cases have had on Chipotle’s reputation. Prior to these events, the establishment was known to be an institution that delivered on its promise to serve high-quality, natural Mexican food.

Within the matter of a few months, the company was dealing with lost profits and a skeptical clientele. As one executive in a related industry stated, “From a well-loved brand doing amazingly well to these multiple outbreaks, it’s amazing the dramatic effect it can have on your sales.”

Further, the company is the target of a federal subpoena for a criminal investigation initiated by the FDA, an action taken as a direct result of potential corporate malfeasance during the August 2015 norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley, California.

Altogether, the impact of these events on Chipotle’s business operations have been substantial. The company continues to experience declining profit in various locations and has halted business operations in others. In an attempt to mitigate such outbreaks and prevent them from recurring, the company periodically halts business operations to accommodate additional food safety trainings that have been deemed necessary.

Featured Image at top courtesy Mike Mozart | Flickr