By: Candess Zona-Mendola

In less than a day, the case count has doubled from seven to fourteen in the breaking outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to the Chicken & Rice Guys restaurant chain and food truck fleet. Ten people have been hospitalized with the same strain of E. coli.  What began as an anonymous tip to a local health agency has now expanded to a full blown investigation involving three health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An entire company is inoperable with suspended licenses. Over 100 employees are undergoing E. coli testing by the health agencies.

The Latest Details

Early on the morning of April 12, 2017, the Boston Inspectional Services met with the Chicken & Rice Guys officials, including the company’s Chief Executive Officer Ian So. Mr. So took to the company’s main Facebook account after the meeting to discuss the findings of the gathering and what the company is doing to cooperate with the health agencies. Mr. So provided the public the following statement in a script format and live video:

“We’ve concluded a meeting this morning with the State and City Boards of Health and here are the facts as we know them:

-The State Department of Health has linked 7 confirmed cases of E. coli to the Chicken & Rice Guys.

-Reported cases have so far been isolated to our food trucks and Allston restaurant between 3/27 and 4/6.

-CNR continues to work closely with the State and City Health Departments to find the source of the problem.

-Yesterday, our food trucks, food truck commissary, and Allston restaurant were inspected including a thorough review of our food handling, cooking, and transportation systems.

-All inspected sites passed, so the investigation is now focusing on our food suppliers and CNR personnel.

-Starting yesterday, CNR began the process of testing all of our nearly 100 employees for E. coli.

-Starting today, CNR will be hiring independent food safety experts as well as an outside cleaning service that specializes in food safety.

-All CNR operations will be temporarily suspended by the Health Department until at least Monday while we continue to test, work with investigators, and clean.”

In a string of public statements, Boston Inspectional Services Commissioner William Christopher, Jr. confirmed the strain of E. coli as E. coli O157:H7 and that the company’s locations are closed pending the investigation. The Boston Globe reports that the company “likely will not reopen [their stores] until at least the middle of next week while health officials search for the cause of the the outbreak.” Commissioner William Christopher, Jr. provided his own statement on the closures. “They [the stores and trucks] will remain closed until we get the tests back from public health investigators. This may have come from an outside source and this may not be the businesses’ situation. It could be anything,” Commissioner Christopher said.

Commissioner William Christopher, Jr. further stated on April 12, 2017 after the meeting with the Chicken & Rice Guys that “food at the facility could have become tainted with E. coli on site, through an employee, or it could have arrived from a vendor already contaminated.” All 100 employees of the company have been ordered to undergo E. coli testing.

A Company-Wide Inspection, One Truck May be to Blame

The Boston Globe has reported that despite the implication Allston location as the chief supplier to the stores and food truck fleet, one truck may be the basis of the outbreak. According to the article, “Boston officials initially said the outbreak could be traced to the restaurant’s Allston outpost, but said Wednesday that some people had become ill after eating at one of the food trucks. They did not identify which truck, or when the exposure took place.” The company has confirmed as well that one truck may be the source. Company Spokesman, Steven Collicelli confirmed that the company closed all of its locations and food trucks upon the health department’s involvement.  He further confirmed that a single food truck may be the center of all of the E. coli cases, but he did not know which food truck would be implicated. According to Mr. Collicelli, “First and foremost for us is our customers’ safety and health. The last thing any restaurant wants is to get their customers’ sick.”

Let’s Talk About E. coli

The bacteria E. coli O157: H7 is an extremely dangerous Shiga toxin producing E. coli.  Often times, the E. coli is transmitted through ingesting meat, especially hamburger meat.  This is because E. coli is primarily carried in the intestines of mammals like: cows, goats, pigs, and humans.  If there is contamination of the meat from its mishandling during butchering or processing and that meat is subsequently not cooked properly, the conditions are suitable for an infection.  However, E. coli is also often found in vegetables and legumes that have been fertilized with unsterilized manure or feces contaminated irrigation them not processed properly to guard against E. coli. Major outbreaks of E. coli have been linked to peanuts used in peanut butter, soynut butter, lettuce, sprouts, spinach and radishes. The source of the E. coli has yet to be determined in this outbreak.

The early symptoms of E. coli are watery diarrhea and severe stomach cramps.  Sometimes, the victim will experience nausea and/or vomiting as well. A minor fever may also accompany other symptoms. If the illness progresses, as it often does, the diarrhea will become increasingly bloody.  Occasionally, the blood will be so significant that it seems to be all that is being expelled. In cases without severe complications, the course of the illness is usually between 2 and 9 days – typically most of this time will be spent in the hospital.

But in approximately 3-7% of E. coli O157:H7 cases, the infection will progress to causing a more severe complication, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure. Of victims who develop HUS, 3-5% will die. Because of how serious these types of E. coli food poisoning infections can be, it is critical that people who suspect they may have it seek medical attention immediately.  The earlier a victim is tested to identify the E. coli pathogen and begins receiving treatment, the better his or her odds are of avoiding HUS and the more severe complications that result from it.

UnsafeFoods will continue to provide coverage on this outbreak as the details unfold.