Chipotle Increases Its Safety Measures as E. Coli Outbreak Spreads to Nine States
Two months after federal health authorities began investigating an E. coli outbreak that temporarily shuttered more than three dozen Chipotle restaurants, the bacteria has continued to infect diners and ravage the restaurant’s sales. Seven additional cases of E. coli have been reported in the last two weeks in Washington, Ohio, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, bringing the total to 52 people reporting illnesses in nine states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday.
Ninety percent of the people interviewed by the CDC said they’d eaten at a Chipotle restaurant within a week of becoming infected, causing epidemiologists to link the fast-casual Mexican eatery to the outbreak. Of the three most recently reported cases, however, just one person reported eating at Chipotle prior to noticing signs of the illness, which can cause diarrhea and other symptoms resembling food poisoning. About 48 million Americans contract food-borne diseases each year, resulting in roughly 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
Chipotle chairman Steve Ells this week pledged to work “harder than ever to ensure that our food is safe and delicious,” including ramping up efforts with the chain’s new food safety program. But the financial damage has already been done. The company said sales have declined in recent weeks by as much as 22 percent and are expected to be down by at least 8 percent this quarter until the end of the year, according to The Associated Press.
The news follows a rough couple of months for the Denver-based company that prides itself on serving fresh ingredients free of GMOs. In September, a New York ad campaign funded by the nonprofit lobbying group Center for Consumer Freedom took aim at Chipotle’s reputation for natural foods by suggesting that while its products might be sustainably grown, they’re loaded with fat and calories. Chipotle has contested the claim—spokesperson Chris Arnold told The Washington Post it was an infantile “smear campaign.”
While Chipotle has long battled media skepticism of its sustainable food practices, the recent E. coli outbreak has been a blow to its image. The company recently hired California-based consulting group IEH Laboratories to assess each of its ingredients, conduct testing on its produce, and improve employee training about food handling. The company said none of its food sample tests have come back positive for E. coli. The CDC, whose investigation is ongoing, has yet to determine which menu item is the source of the outbreak.