By: James Peacock

On July 17, it became clear that there had been a foodborne illness outbreak caused by the Chipotle location on Tripleseven Road in Sterling Virginia. Through the use of the crowdsourcing website iwaspoisoned.com, at least 13 cases of illness were reported by consumers who ate at the Chipotle location. The majority of those who reported being ill described symptoms consistent with a norovirus infection. The Chipotle restaurant was closed and sanitized shortly after the reports started to come in. Jim Marsden, Chipotle’s Executive Director of Food Safety, released a statement about the outbreak just after that, saying, “We are working with health authorities to understand what the cause may be and to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. The reported symptoms are consistent with norovirus. Norovirus does not come from our food supply, and it is safe to eat at Chipotle.”

The Loudoun County Health Department started an outbreak investigation almost immediately after they were notified about the illnesses. The Chipotle location closed on July 17 and began to work closely with the health department. Health Department staff was at the location on July 18 and July 19 to oversee the sanitation process and to investigate the outbreak. The restaurant reopened on July 19. No specific source at the restaurant has been pinpointed, but test results that should shed light on that mystery will be ready early next week, according to the latest news release published by the Loudoun County Health Department. That update, which was posted on July 20, also states that there are now at least 60 people sickened after eating at the Sterling, Virginia Chipotle location. The director of the health department, Dr. David Goodfriend, has said that there has been one case of norovirus confirmed by a laboratory. The health department has also said that anyone who ate at the Chipotle restaurant and became ill should contact the department by calling (703) 771-5411.

Chipotle’s Outbreak History

Chipotle has a history of causing foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2015 and 2016, Chipotle restaurants across the nation caused six separate outbreaks that sickened more than 500 people. Norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli were all involved in the outbreaks. Salmonella in tomatoes sickened 64 people in Minnesota. E. coli infections were responsible for three of the outbreaks, including an outbreak that sickened five in Seattle and two multi-state, CDC-investigated outbreaks that sickened 53 people and 5 people. Norovirus caused two different outbreaks, one in California that sickened 234 people, and one at Boston College that sickened 140 people.

Norovirus

Norovirus infections represent the most common source of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are between 19 and 21 million cases every year. Almost 2 million people are forced to contact a medical professional because of their norovirus infection. Between 56,000 and 71,000 people are hospitalized every year because of norovirus, and there are around 1,000 deaths annually. While norovirus infections are common year round, more norovirus infections are recorded in the winter months. The vast majority of norovirus cases are spread from person to person, because the virus is among the most contagious of the foodborne pathogens. Because of this, norovirus outbreaks tend to infect many people in a short period of time, and also tend to burn themselves out.

Outbreaks of norovirus are commonly associated with leafy greens, fresh fruits, and shellfish. Foods can become contaminated with norovirus at any point during the manufacturing, shipping, and cooking processes. Norovirus outbreaks are especially dangerous in areas where contact with other people is common. Healthcare facilities, schools, and daycares are some of the most common places that a norovirus outbreak may take place. Cruise ships are also a common outbreak location. Like any foodborne pathogen, norovirus outbreaks are also common at restaurants and catered events. Although norovirus is very contagious, there are methods that can reduce the chance of an infection taking place. Norovirus being so easily spread makes hygiene one of the most important methods of preventing disease. Practicing proper hand washing will greatly reduce the risk of spreading the infection. For tips on how to practice proper hand washing, click here. Properly cooking foods is another way to reduce the chance of infection. Most meats must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to eliminate potential contaminants. Fish and other seafood will often need to be cooked to a temperature of 145 degrees to achieve the same effect. A full list of proper cooking temperatures can be found here.

The greatest risk of norovirus poisoning comes when someone is still symptomatic, or are in the first few days after recovering from the illness. Norovirus itself is almost exclusively transmitted through fecal matter, but this exposure can happen in several ways. Eating food or drinking something prepared by someone ill with norovirus poisoning, being in contact with ill persons and touching contaminated surfaces may all lead to a norovirus infection. 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 still possible. Most cases of norovirus poisoning will clear up on its own within 3 days, but in some cases, the illness may worsen. When a norovirus infection worsens, it 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. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of norovirus poisoning, contact a medical professional.