By: Alice Vo Edwards

Who do you know in the Boston area? Have they eaten at The Chicken and Rice Guys lately? In a chilling tale, four locations of a Boston food truck company well-loved for its tasty products, The Chicken and Rice Guys, has been shut down by the Boston Inspectional Services Department, Health Division, after an outbreak of E. coli was traced back to the beloved food trucks. Many businessmen and college students found themselves this week looking for somewhere else to get their lunch.

Health officials have identified the strain of E. coli that is the culprit in this outbreak as the O157:H7 strain; a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) variant that is potentially deadly. On their Facebook page, The Chicken and Rice Guys stated that their understanding is that those who have been admitted to the hospital become ill in the last week of March, but no confirmations have been published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Boston Health Department/ Boston Inspectional Services at this time. That means anyone who ate at The Chicken and Rice Guys anytime from the beginning of March and on into April should be on the alert for symptoms. It is highly likely that more cases of illness will be identified in the near future.

How bad is this outbreak?

As of this morning, ten people have been hospitalized and four others have been reported ill, related to this outbreak. While fourteen people may not seem like a lot in a city the size of Boston, keep in mind that only a small number of those infected will show symptoms, and of those, many will assume they have the flu or some other illness and will not go to the hospital to be checked. This can be dangerous with the STEC strain of E. coli since, for those who do get ill, it can cause death by kidney failure or severe central nervous system issues.

To understand how bad this outbreak really is, consider the I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter outbreak that was reported last month. In that outbreak, 29 cases were reported and 12 people were hospitalized over a 12-state region. As of late last month, cases were still being identified as part of the outbreak. Cases may still be forthcoming. From just one group of food trucks, already there are almost as many hospitalizations as in the SoyNut Butter case, and more people are likely to report into the hospital as the news spreads the word.

When it comes to the Chicken and Rice Guys food poisoning outbreak, the number of cases has doubled overnight, so it is not unreasonable to expect that more cases will be coming in over the next few days and weeks, especially since the source has not yet been identified other than originating from the Chicken and Rice Guys food trucks. To add to the difficulty in tracking those who may be ill, the CDC reports that it can take 2-3 weeks for a person to become ill and report it, and most don’t report their illnesses at all. Since STEC infections have to be identified through laboratory testing, this means that many individuals who may be infected and capable of spreading infection do not know they are infected and may not follow good hygiene practices. This is especially concerning for food service workers.

For example, on the day the Downtown Crossing location of The Chicken and Rice Guys was closed by the health department, a regular customer, Dave Andrews, was turned away. He reported to the Boston Globe that he had eaten there the week before and gotten sick the evening he ate there. “I ordered the chicken with lamb and salad.” Andrews told the reporter, adding “It didn’t land very well.” Mr. Andrews did not get sick enough to be concerned about checking with his doctor, so he is one of the many who may have been affected, unknowingly, by the outbreak. This is an example of the lack of understanding many may have between the connection with stomach ailments, what they ate, and the spread of the disease. These infections are preventable.

What symptoms should I be on the lookout for?

Symptoms of E. coli can seem very like the flu or any other mild food poisoning. These can include stomach cramps, vomiting, or a low fever.

Less common symptoms that might mean it is E. coli and something more serious to be concerned about include bloody diarrhea, if you stop feeling the urge to urinate, develop skin pallor, or feel extra tired. These may be a symptom of developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, a deadly complication of STEC infection which causes kidney failure. Anyone with these symptoms should immediately get checked by their doctor; even if they did not personally go to The Chicken and Rice Guys, they may have contracted the illness by contact with someone else who did, and was contagious. It is not uncommon for infections to occur due to secondary transmission.

Share this now: The importance of telling others and getting checked if you experience any symptoms yourself

In cases of food poisoning like E. coli, it is very helpful in preventing deaths that the news and everyone who reads or hears about it shares it with friends and family, especially those who live in or have visited the area where the outbreak has occurred, within the past month. If you know anyone who lives in or has visited the Boston area in March or April, please share with them and ask them to make sure they tell everyone they know to be on the lookout for new symptoms, or check with their doctor if they think they may have eaten contaminated food at The Chicken and Rice Guys or been around someone else, who has.

Stay in the loop as this story continues to unfold. UnsafeFoods will continue to provide coverage on this outbreak as details unfold, so check back for updates.