NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, December 11, 2015, 6:07 PM
Will I get sick from eating at my neighborhood Chipotle?
Outbreaks of E. Coli, salmonella and norovirus in Chipotle restaurants across the country have prompted mass closings and questions from consumers and investors.
Company executives have outlined steps that a food safety expert and lawyer representing 72 people sickened from eating at Chipotle told the Daily News could transform it into a model of food safety. The popular Mexican chain won’t wrap up a definitive “yes” answer as to whether it’s safe to eat there unless it backs up its talk, though.
A sign outside the Boston-area Chipotle health officials have linked to a norovirus outbreak affecting over 140 students shows the restaurant closed as agencies investigate.
“I’ve been doing this since the Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993 and the number of possible cases in such a short period of time is something I’ve never really seen before,” said William Marler of the Seattle-based Marler Clark LLP.
The virus and bacteria outbreaks have afflicted hundreds in several states. Seattle suffered the first E. coli cases in July, followed by almost 100 cases of norovirus — a highly-contagious virus that inflames a person’s stomach or intestines — in California’s Simi Valley the following month.
Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota infected around 70 people with salmonella in September, and over 140 Boston College students were confirmed with norovirus earlier this week, health officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its latest count cited 52 cases of E. coli in nine states, the majority of which were reported in Washington and Oregon.
A microbiologist points out an isolated E. coli growth on an agar plate from a patient specimen at the Washington State Department of Health in November. Chipotle closed 43 locations in Washington and Oregon following an E. coli outbreak.
Chipotle, which has 1,900 locations nationwide, closed 43 stores in the two states before reopening them following deep cleaning and inspections by local health officials. The Brighton, Mass., restaurant near the B.C. campus also shuttered as local health agencies investigate the outbreak, The Boston Globe reported.
Marler’s clients have endured symptoms like severe vomiting and diarrhea and some have missed work for months with extended hospital stays, he said. He has multiple lawsuits pending against the Denver-based company.
Chipotle CEO Steve Ells apologized for the outbreaks in his first public comments on them on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday.
Chipotle’s stock dropped nearly 30% from August to December, according to CNN Money. But the shares gained some ground back after Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells pledged to make the restaurant “the safest place to eat” Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show.
“I’m sorry for the people who got sick. They are having a tough time and I feel terrible about that,” Ells said. “We’re doing a lot to rectify this and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Company executives plan to work with food safety testing firm IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group to conduct reviews of ingredient handling and preparation, staff training and routine audits. Marler praised the company’s approach.
The company is cooperating with several state, local and national health agencies as it tries to assure customers at locations like this Brighton, Mass., location near the campus of Boston College.
“I know the consultants that Chipotle has hired and they’re really some of the best,” he said. “If Chipotle follows what they say they’re going to do, then they really will be one of the safest places to eat.”
Marler added that he thinks his two college-aged daughters will continue eating at Chipotle despite the stomach-churning news. A Minnesota Department of Health spokesman who was interviewed in September by the Minneapolis Star Tribune said he had eaten a fully loaded burrito bowl even as the agency linked 17 Chipotle restaurants to the salmonella outbreak.
Customers weren’t scared away from a packed-as-usual lower Manhattan location Friday afternoon, either. But Kings College student Schmid Peterly, 20, told the Daily News he has cut down his twice-a-week trips to Chipotle to twice per month.
Norovirus virions like these cause vomiting and diarrhea and, in some cases, dehydration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think I should find out more information,” Peterly said. “I feel like nobody knows what the symptoms are, so even if they have it, they wouldn’t know what it is.”
Two sisters visiting the city from Mexico, Annie and Mariana Lopez, said they had heard about Chipotle’s food safety issues but are used enough to taking chances on bacteria in their home country to enjoy their burritos without fear.
“Most of the time we think we are pretty E. coli-resistant,” said Annie Lopez, 28. “So that’s why we’re at Chipotle anyways.”
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