As 43 shuttered Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon prepared to reopen on Wednesday after an E. coli outbreak that has sickened about 49 people, health officials said they’re still unable to pinpoint the outbreak’s source.
As 43 shuttered Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon prepared to reopen on Wednesday following an E. coli outbreak that has sickened about 49 people, health officials said they’re still unable to pinpoint the outbreak’s source.
But that’s not surprising, they said.
“Unfortunately, it’s the rule rather than the exception,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. “It’s not unusual to not be able to find the source of a foodborne-illness outbreak.”
In the days or weeks it takes to identify and link multiple cases of foodborne illnesses, the tainted perishable foods likely to blame for such an outbreak are probably long gone, leaving behind an epidemiological mystery, health officials say.
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But the lack of a specific known culprit behind the latest rash of Chipotle food poisonings doesn’t mean the Mexican-food-chain restaurants linked to the outbreak will pose heightened risks to consumers, health officials added.
Rather, it’s to the contrary, they said. When the popular fast-food restaurants reopen for business, they’ll likely present fewer risks to the public than they did about three weeks ago, when customers started getting exposed.
“I can’t say the risk is zero, but they’ve minimized the risk to a point that they’re at baseline or below where they were when this all started,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the Washington state epidemiologist for communicable diseases.
To manage the crisis, Denver-based Chipotle has taken several steps to improve food safety that go “above and beyond” the typical response to such incidents, Lindquist said.
The measures include a “deep cleaning” and sanitization of all of 2,000 Chipotle restaurants nationwide, and replacing all ingredients in its closed restaurants in the Northwest with fresh produce, raw meat and dairy products already tested for E. coli and other food poisoning bugs.
“We have also retained two of the nation’s best food-safety scientists to work with us to assess practices and find additional areas for improvement,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said. “We are leaving no stone unturned in terms of finding ways to improve upon our practices.”
The manner in which a company responds to such a food-safety crisis can be crucial to its future, said Gale Prince, whose Ohio-based Sage Food Safety Consultants firm has worked for some of the world’s largest food companies.
“We’ve seen some companies come back with business that was as good or better than it was before a crisis,” Prince said Tuesday. “And, we’ve seen some companies just totally disappear when they did not take an immediate positive stance in their safety programs.”
In Chipotle’s case, Prince said, the quick and aggressive approach displayed to date likely will play to the company’s favor.
“They’ve demonstrated their commitment to food safety by voluntarily closing their facilities and then taking proactive steps early on,” he said.
But is Chipotle’s response all that aggressive? Seattle attorney Bill Marler wonders.
“The things they instituted now are all so basic and all so standard, you have to ask yourself, why the heck didn’t they do all of this before,” Marler said Tuesday.
Marler, one of the nation’s top food-safety trial lawyers, already has filed two federal lawsuits against Chipotle based on the latest outbreak. Among his 26 clients are two children who were hospitalized at Seattle Children’s hospital and a 70-year-old woman just released from an intensive-care unit in Portland, he said.
The latest rash of food poisonings represents the fourth outbreak linked to Chipotle restaurants this year, Marler said. That includes outbreaks in Minnesota, California and a previous one in Seattle that sickened five customers of a Chipotle restaurant on Capitol Hill.
Local health officials “didn’t notify the public about that one; they just kept it quiet,” Marler said. “And that’s what drives me crazy. Maybe if they’d gone public, we could’ve avoided this outbreak.”
Most reports of potential food-related illnesses pose no ongoing threat, Duchin said, so local health departments do not report them to the public.
Of the more than 1,000 potential cases each year in King County, only a handful are confirmed as food-related outbreaks, he said.
When those confirmed cases pose an ongoing risk to the public, an announcement is made.
That’s why the most recent Chipotle-related outbreak attracted widespread media attention, while the smaller case wasn’t reported, Duchin said.
At latest count, at least 30 people in Washington and 19 in Oregon became ill from the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strain known as STEC O26, which can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting.
It can also be fatal in severe cases, though no deaths have been reported to date, officials said.
Most victims had eaten in one of at least 11 Chipotle restaurants in Western Washington and the Portland area. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Chipotle have since tested hundreds of food items trying to identify the outbreak’s source, but all tests have been negative, Lindquist said.
On Tuesday, a sign posted on the front door of Chipotle in Seattle’s South Lake Union informed lunch-hour customers of the restaurant’s temporary closure “due to a supply issue.” Meanwhile inside, a uniformed crew wiped down countertops and equipment.
Before reopening the closed restaurants, local food inspectors will determine if each is in compliance with cleaning and safety procedures, health officials said. Protocol changes prompted by such outbreaks can be good for public safety in the long run, they added.
After the 1993 E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box restaurants that killed four children, “The whole way the industry approached cooking burgers changed,” Duchin noted.
Still, it took another decade before the beef industry stopped fighting regulatory legislation that ultimately led to a steep decline of such outbreaks, said Marler, who built a national reputation on the Jack in the Box outbreak.
“Unfortunately, change is incremental in all human endeavors,” Marler said. “We only make dramatic changes when we’ve been hit in the head with a 2-by-4 once or twice. Hopefully for Chipotle, this is their 2-by-4 moment.”