Chipotle E. Coli Outbreak Continues To Widen, Hurting Sales, Company Admits

Amid a continuing multi-state outbreak of E. Coli food poisoning among customers, including at least 20 hospitalizations, Chipotle reports that sales have plummeted at stores nationwide.

According to the latest update provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on December 4, new illnesses continue to be reported in connection with an Chipotle E. Coli STEC O26 outbreak, with at least 52 cases identified in 9 different states.

The E. coli investigation was initially opened on November 4, following five illnesses reported in Washington and Oregon. However, the case count has continued to grow rapidly, with a majority of illness onset dates beginning in mid-October, and reports surfacing on both coasts.

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In an attempt to control the outbreak, Chipotle temporarily shut down 43 of its Oregon and Washington based restaurants and performed thorough cleanings. The company, state and federal investigators have tried to discover the source of the contamination, however, no root cause has been identified. Health officials believe it may have originated from one of the company’s fresh produce ingredients.

Chipotle officials say their food chain continues to serve over a million consumers a day. However, they admit sales have dropped dramatically since the outbreak began. The restaurant reported sales dropping by eight percent in comparison to last year and anticipate that number will be 11 percent by the end of the fourth quarter, making it the largest drop in company history.

A large part of the company’s sales drops could be centered on the fact that no source of contamination has been identified in over a month since the outbreak was recognized, leaving customers hesitant to trust the integrity of the company’s newly shipped ingredients.

The company has announced that it has expanded its food safety program in response to the outbreak.

Just over a month now since the initial announcement of the outbreak, several comparable strains of the E. coli STEC 026 infection have been reported. The impacted states range from mostly North Western and North Eastern areas including California (3), Illinois (1), Maryland (1), Minnesota (2), New York (1), Ohio (3), Oregon (13), Pennsylvania (1), and Washington (27).

The CDC and the FDA report that to date, 47 out of 52 people, or 90%, that were interviewed reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant within a few days before getting sick.

The federal agencies, along with several state and local authorities, have been tracking the outbreak using whole genome sequencing which is an advanced laboratory technique to recover information about the strains DNA fingerprint. To date, the results of the tests have retrieved 21 genetically related isolates of STEC O26 providing further assurance that the illnesses outside of the Pacific Northwest are related to the illnesses in Oregon and Washington.

Investigating officials have reported the outbreak could widen again as new information from local and state health departments are uploaded, which could further hurt the Mexican chains sales. Illnesses that occurred after November 11, 2015 might not be reported yet due to the average of two to three weeks  it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported.

The strain of E. coli STEC O26 is a foodborne bacteria that causes mild to severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, bloody stools, and sometimes minor fevers lasting between 5 and 10 days. For individuals like young children, the sick and the elderly, the consequences may be more severe due to weakened immune systems, potentially resulting in the infection causing a serious condition known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which may lead to kidney failure or even death.

The CDC estimates that roughly 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses each year, causing around 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Foodborne illnesses, E. coli especially are easily transmitted by consuming, touching, drinking, or by some sort of physical transfer of the bacteria.

A number of Chipotle food poisoning lawsuits have already been filed against the nationwide chain by some consumers who fell ill.


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