By: James Peacock
A Chipotle location in Sterling, Virginia has been closed pending sanitation after reports arose that there may be a foodborne illness outbreak occurring at the restaurant. There have been eight individual reports of food poisoning, totaling at least 13 ill persons overall. All thirteen people ate at the restaurant between July 14 and July 15. One reported case of food poisoning indicated that at least two people have had to be hospitalized for their illness. Chipotle’s Executive Director of Food Safety, Jim Marsden, has said that they “are working with health authorities to understand what the cause may be and to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.” Although no pathogen has been found to be responsible with this outbreak, symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and dehydration, have been reported. These symptoms point toward quite a few different pathogens, but the leading candidate is Norovirus. Though E. coli and Salmonella can also cause these symptoms, only more testing and investigating will narrow down the source of the outbreak.
Norovirus infections represent the most common source of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are between 19 and 21 million cases every year. A case of Norovirus poisoning can cause inflammation in the stomach, as well as the intestines. Symptoms of Norovirus poisoning will begin to rise between 12 and 48 hours after the first exposure to the pathogen. Commonly, a Norovirus infection will produce symptoms, including: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Fever, headaches, and body aches are less common symptoms, but are still possible. Most cases of Norovirus poisoning will clear up on their own within 3 days, but in some cases, the illness may worsen. Norovirus can also cause dehydration, which will present with symptoms, including: decrease in urination, dry mouth, dizziness upon standing, and dry throat. Young children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are at an increased risk of contracting a serious case of Norovirus poisoning and becoming dehydrated. While there is no specific method of treating a Norovirus infection, many doctors will recommend rest and hydration to treat the illness. Coffee, alcohol, and other dehydrating liquids should be avoided, as well as overly salty foods.
Salmonella bacteria are one of the most common causes of gastrointestinal illness in America. The CDC estimates that Salmonella causes about 1.2 million cases of illness per year. A case of Salmonella poisoning usually produces symptoms between 12 and 72 hours after infection. Symptoms of Salmonella poisoning typically include: vomiting, abdominal cramping, fever, and nausea. Generally, an infection will go away on its own within a week, although Salmonella infections may worsen. Those with certain risk factors, including children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems may be at an increased risk of developing a serious case of Salmonella poisoning
E. coli infections are one of the most common forms of foodborne illness in the Unites States. There are many different types of E. coli bacteria, and some strains of the bacteria will be referred to as E. coli (STEC). The CDC estimates that there are around 265,000 cases of E. coli poisoning each year in the United States. Only a small amount of E. coli bacteria is necessary to cause an infection. Symptoms of E. coli poisoning will usually occur between 1 and 9 days after exposure. Symptoms of an E. coli infection will typically include: severe cramping, vomiting, nausea, and watery or bloody diarrhea. There is sometimes a low-grade fever associated with the infection as well. These symptoms will, most of the time, go away on their own after about a week but can last longer. There are a couple of complications associated with an E. coli infection. Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which can be very serious if left untreated. E. coli infections can also cause a rare but potentially fatal complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which occurs in about 3 to 7 percent of E. coli cases. HUS damages red blood cells, which are then sent to the kidneys in order to be filtered out. The damage from the filtration process, coupled with the increased rate of damage inflicted on the kidneys by Shiga toxins, can lead to serious kidney damage and even kidney failure. If a case of E. coli poisoning has progressed to HUS, symptoms such as decreased frequency in urination, fatigue, and loss of color in the eyes and cheeks will be present. HUS is a very serious complication that needs to be treated as quickly as possible. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, contact a medical professional.
Chipotle’s Outbreak History
Chipotle’s foodborne illness issues began in late July 2015, when 5 people in Seattle were sickened with E. coli O157:H7. Two of these people needed to be hospitalized due to their illness. By the time health officials had figured out that Chipotle was the source of the outbreak, it was already over. Only one store was involved in this outbreak. The outbreak was not immediately reported to the media. It wasn’t until November that the public was made aware.
South of Seattle, in Ventura, California, Chipotle was the cause of another outbreak. This outbreak was caused by Norovirus, one of the leading causes of gastrointestinal illness in the United States. Illnesses began to be reported during the week of August 18, 2015. The Ventura County Environmental Health Division pinpointed the source of the outbreak to the Chipotle location in the Simi Valley Towne Center. The restaurant was voluntarily closed and cleaned after the outbreak was reported. At least 234 people were sickened in this outbreak.
September of that year brought another outbreak; this time in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health reported that 64 people were sickened by Salmonella Newport after eating tomatoes served by Chipotle locations across the state. A total of 22 Chipotle restaurants were affected by this outbreak, in locations, such as: Edina, Crystal, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, St. Paul Lawson, Bloomington, Richfield, Maple Grove, Maplewood, Minnetonka, Rochester, Shoreview, St. Cloud, Mankato, and several locations around Minneapolis. Nine people were hospitalized. A nationwide outbreak of E. coli began in mid-October. This outbreak drew the attention of the CDC, and their investigation is still ongoing. Fifty-three people were sickened in nine states. Washington is the hardest hit state, with 27 reported illnesses. Oregon has reported the second most cases, with 13 people sick. Following Washington and Oregon are: California with three cases, Ohio with 3 cases, Minnesota with 2 cases, Pennsylvania with 2 cases, New York with 1 case, Maryland with 1 case, and Illinois with 1 case. Twenty people have been hospitalized. This outbreak forced Chipotle to close all restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, a total of 43 locations. These restaurants have since reopened.
The month of November brought another CDC investigation, this time in the Midwest. These illnesses were also caused by E. coli, but when tested were from a different strain than the cause of the larger nationwide outbreak. Five people were sickened in that outbreak, across three different Midwest states. In early December, however, another Norovirus outbreak was found to be caused by Chipotle restaurants. This outbreak was located in Boston, Massachusetts. The Chipotle location on the campus of Boston College sickened more than 140 people, many of them students. The source of this outbreak has been identified as an employee who came to work while sick. Chipotle responded by promptly closing the store, and it was reopened after two subsequent samples tested negative for Norovirus. The employee responsible for the outbreak and the shift manager on duty at the time has been fired.