By: Eva Frederick

The local health departments confirm fifteen people have been diagnosed with E. coli poisoning and ten of those have been hospitalized after eating at Boston Middle Eastern-inspired Halal food truck chain The Chicken & Rice Guys over the past few days.

The company voluntarily shut down its four restaurants and fleet of trucks Wednesday, and will not reopen until at least Monday but probably mid-week next week, according to William Christopher, Jr., the Boston Inspectional Services Division’s Commissioner. This outbreak is one of the most severe E. coli situations so far this year, according to the Center for Disease Control’s E. coli homepage.

At first, authorities pointed to the chain’s Allston location, one of their permanent locations, as the only source of the E. coli, although subsequent evidence links cases to one or more of their several food trucks. The State Department of Health said the time window when infection occurred in the reported cases was between March 27 and April 6.

Officials are attempting to trace the cause of the outbreak in several ways: First, all The Chicken & Rice Guys business sites underwent an inspection earlier in the week to see if the outbreak could be due to unhygienic practices. All the locations passed, which led officials to begin an investigation into the suppliers of ingredients used in the company’s Halal-style meals. Now, each of the company’s nearly 100 employees is being tested individually for E.coli. This will help identify whether the outbreak could have been caused by a sick employee.

Christopher said it is not clear exactly where the outbreak originated, or at which stage of the farm-to-table chain the bacteria were introduced. He said the E. coli could have come in contact with the food on site at the restaurant, through contact with a sick employee, or at some point during its transport from the original vendor.

“This may have come from an outside source and this may not be the business’s’ situation,” Christopher told The Boston Globe. “It could be anything.”

E. coli

Escherichia coli is a potentially deadly bacterium that is responsible for many cases of food poisoning across the US. The bacteria are present in the stomachs of many animals people eat, such as cows and pigs. If the meat is improperly processed and then not cooked properly, E. coli poisoning can occur. E. coli is also found in legumes, nuts, and vegetables such as spinach and lettuce. Another notable outbreak of E. coli in 2017 was linked to soynut butter, and affected 29 people across 12 states.

While many strains of E. coli are harmless, the strain involved in this outbreak, E.coli 0157:H7 is harmful to humans because of a chemical it produces called Shiga toxin. Early symptoms of E. coli poisoning include stomach cramps and diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody. In severe cases, patients can develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be deadly. Only around 3-7 percent of E. coli cases result in this syndrome, but of those 3-7 percent, 3-5 percent will die.

E. coli is a relatively common pathogen in the United States. In 1999, the CDC estimated that around 73,000 people got sick from the bacteria each year, and 60 died. Since then, the number has presumably decreased.

It appears this may be the first food safety scare for the company, which was started in 2012 by CEO Ian So. The Chicken and Rice Guys chain began in 2012 with a truck purchased on eBay, and has since evolved into a multi-million dollar business with four restaurants and a fleet of trucks. The restaurants serve plates of seasoned rice or salad with protein such as chicken, tofu, or beef and lamb gyro. The meals are accompanied by sauces such as creamy garlic sauce, hot sauce, and a mint-cilantro-jalapeno blend. According to his LinkedIn profile, So’s goal for The Chicken & Rice Guys is for it to eventually grow into the first global food truck brand.

On Wednesday, So posted a Facebook Live video to the company’s page, in which he apologized for the illnesses caused by the outbreak, and provided updates and information about the status of the outbreak.

“If you know our team and the dedication we have, this hurts a lot,” So said. “But obviously, we have to do a better job.”

According to So, the Chicken & Rice guys are remaining closed over the weekend while they clean, test, and investigate possible causes of the outbreak. Before the restaurants and trucks can reopen, all of the food must be destroyed, the kitchens sterilized and the employees tested for E. coli sickness. Christopher said the stores will remain closed until the tests come back from public health investigators.

“The owners have been tremendously cooperative,” said Christopher in an interview with 7News Boston. “As soon as we started talking to them, they shut everything down.”

Representatives of The Chicken & Rice Guys are being open and transparent on social media, and are encouraging communication from anyone who might have been affected or people with questions.

“If you think you may have become ill recently after eating at a CNR location, we absolutely want and need to hear from you,” a representative said in a post to the page.

As the chain handles the situation, Facebook abounds with get well soon videos and supportive tweets for the chain, which typically garners high ratings on Yelp and other reviewing sites. So said in the Facebook Live video that he is appreciative of the showing of support for the chain in this difficult time.

“We are completely sorry about this,” So said. “Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive to us. It is completely heartwarming that there are people supporting us when we made such a bad mistake.”

The Chicken & Rice Guys have taken action to guard against future outbreaks and move forward safely by hiring independent food safety consultants and an outside cleaning service that focuses on food safety.

E. coli lawsuit   Hemolytic uremic syndrome lawsuit

“We won’t get people’s trust back overnight, but we will do everything we can to be honest and earn that trust back,” So said.