Chipotle restaurants in Washington could reopen as soon as Wednesday after tests found no sign of E. coli linked to an outbreak and the restaurant chain agreed to extensive steps to ensure safety, health officials said.
Chipotle restaurants in Washington may reopen as soon as Wednesday after samples tested negative for E. coli linked to an outbreak that sickened dozens in Washington and Oregon, health officials said Monday.
Tests of thousands of produce samples turned up negative for the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O26 bacteria tagged as the culprit, and the popular restaurant chain has gone “above and beyond” state health requirements to ensure safety, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s epidemiologist for communicable disease.
“Do I think the food is safe? I can’t answer whether the food is safe, but I can tell you I agree with all of the steps they are taking,” Lindquist said. “We have found no food with E. coli and there doesn’t appear to be an ongoing risk at this point.”
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. voluntarily closed 43 restaurants after reports of illness starting in mid-October.
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Cases in the outbreak jumped to 43 Monday, with 28 cases in Washington state and 15 in Oregon. Fourteen people have been hospitalized in the outbreak, but no serious complications or deaths were reported.
In Washington, cases include 11 in residents of Clark County, six in King County, six in Skagit County, two each in Cowlitz and Island counties and one in Whatcom County, health officials said.
Before the Chipotle sites reopen, the restaurant chain must meet several requirements set by the state, including tossing all food, deep-cleaning the sites and checking all employees for E. coli infection. In addition, the chain must add a second produce rinse to their existing protocol and undergo inspections by local health officials, Lindquist said.
Chipotle also has agreed to conduct tests of high-risk foods before they’re sent to the restaurants, Lindquist said. If all those conditions are met, the chain could start shipping produce to the restaurants on Tuesday and reopen on Wednesday, he added.
“They’re doing everything they can in light of not knowing what the product is,” Lindquist said.
Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Tests failed to detect the genetic fingerprint of the bacteria, which is not uncommon in outbreaks that may center on perishable produce, Lindquist said. In addition, interviews with people who fell ill and those who ate at Chipotle but didn’t get sick failed to detect any signal for the cause of the outbreak.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter Monday to Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), urging the agency to continue to support the efforts of local health officials to find the source of the problem.
“A swift and decisive local response is key to containing foodborne illness outbreaks and the effectiveness of these actions is amplified when local and state officials can benefit from federal expertise at the CDC,” she wrote.
Several lawsuits have been filed or are pending by representatives of people sickened after eating at Chipotle sites in the two states.