By: Heather Williams

Chipotle, a popular burrito chain, is at the source of another foodborne outbreak.  As hard as this restaurant tries to bring fresh, hormone-free and antibiotic-free, local food to its health savvy consumers it no more immune to risk of foodborne illness than any other restaurant.

The current issue involves Norovirus infection traced back to Chipotle Mexican Grill at 21031 Tripleseven Road in Sterling Virginia.  The Loudoun County Health Department has identified at least 135 individuals who report becoming ill after visiting the restaurant between July 13, 2017 and July 16, 2017. “Two ill patrons have tested positive for the same strain of Norovirus.  Based on symptoms reported and these preliminary laboratory results, the cause of the outbreak is believed to be Norovirus, though the specific source of the Norovirus has not yet been identified,” said Dr. David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department. “The Health Department is not aware of any customers becoming ill since the reopening of the facility last Wednesday.”

The Loudoun County Health Department encourages the public to contact them with any questions or concerns at [email protected].

Note: Chipotle Food Poisoning Lawsuit

A History of Outbreaks

While Chipotle is not the only restaurant to share the woes of foodborne illness, and many occasions were from suppliers and out of the burrito chain’s control, Chipotle has experienced a string of outbreaks.

In 2008 a Chipotle in Kent, Ohio left 509 ill with Norovirus.

In March and April 2008, a Chipotle in La Mesa, California was the source of a Hepatitis A outbreak that left 22 ill and hospitalized 4.  Chipotle was unable to identify the source of the outbreak after testing all restaurant employees, finding everyone negative of the virus.

In February 2009, lettuce that was contaminated with raw/undercooked chicken in Apple Valley, Minnesota left 11 ill and 2 hospitalized with Campylobacter.

In September 2009, an E. coli outbreak affected Chipotles in Colorado and New York, Café Rios in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Additional illnesses in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina all linked back to lettuce from the distributer Church Brothers LLC.

Between August and September 2015, 17 Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota were affected by a Salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes that left 115 ill and hospitalized 17.

In August 2015, a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley, California was the source of a Norovirus outbreak affecting 80 customers and 18 employees.

In November 2015, a Chipotle restaurant in Boston was a source of a Norovirus outbreak where an employee was implicated at the origin.  80 people were left ill.

In November 2015, a Shiga Toxin producing E. coli outbreak was linked to Chipotle’s in Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma that hospitalized 20.

Between December 2015 and January 2016, 11 states including California, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington left 55 ill and hospitalized 21.

What is Norovirus?

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that affects the stomach and intestines causing acute gastroenteritis.  This is commonly known as the stomach flu because the symptoms appear similar to the flu with additional stomach symptoms.  Sometimes it is called the cruise ship virus because it is commonly spread on cruises, supposedly because there are so many people in a confined area, but this is a misnomer because norovirus is transmitted via fecal-oral transmission, not by coughing, sneezing, etc.

Common Symptoms

Common symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.  Other symptoms may include fever, headache, and body aches.  Symptoms generally develop within 12 to 48 hours after exposure and most people recover within 1 to 3 days without medical intervention.

A complication of Norovirus infection is dehydration.  Those with extreme vomiting or diarrhea may become extremely dehydrated.  The very young, the very old, and those already experiencing other illness are at the highest risk of dehydration.  Symptoms of dehydration include decreased urination, dry mouth and throat, and dizziness.  Dehydration in children should be closely monitored.  If the child cries with few or no tear or is unusually sleepy or fussy, the child may be dehydrated.  Additional measures need to be taken to keep children hydrated during infection.

How It’s Spread

Norovirus is spread through fecal-oral contact.  That means something that makes its way into your mouth has come in contact with infected feces.  This can occur in many ways, and is not always at the fault of the person infected.

  • Consuming food or drinks prepared by someone infected with Norovirus who has not washed their hands after using the restroom or has come in contact with an infected surface and has not washed their hands prior to preparing or serving food.
  • Touching surfaces or objects that have been contaminated with Norovirus and then putting your fingers into your mouth.
  • Sharing food or eating utensils with someone who is infected with Norovirus who has not washed their hands after using the restroom.

Those who are infected may be contagious even before they feel sick and can continue to be contagious after symptoms resolve.  In fact, the virus can stay infectious in stool for 2 weeks or more after symptoms are gone.  A person is most infectious when they are sick with Norovirus illness and presenting symptoms and during the first few days after symptoms stop.

Norovirus and Food

Outbreaks generally occur in a restaurant setting in that one contagious person can infect many people depending on their role.  Handwashing and self-reporting is extremely important in the food industry to prevent an infection from becoming outbreak status.

Foods that are most at risk are those that are considered ready-to-eat that are not cooked or handled with bare hands before serving.  Any food served raw or handled after being cooked may become contaminated with Norovirus on its way to the unknowing restaurant patron.

How Can I Prevent Norovirus Infection?

Always wash your hands prior to eating and preparing or serving food.  When consuming food at a restaurant, eat foods that have been cooked to minimize risk.  When taking care of someone who is ill, be sure to wash hands and clean up thoroughly and frequently.