Turns out Chipotle's E. coli disaster could be more widespread than originally thought. The recent foodborne illness outbreak was originally thought to be relegated to Washington and Oregon; now, the CDC says infections from the E. coli strain linked to the Chipotle outbreak has now been identified in a total of six states, including California, New York, Ohio, and Minnesota. A total of 45 people have been infected.
More than 40 Chipotle locations that were shuttered in the Northwest following the outbreak have now reopened, following deep-cleaning and health inspections. Despite efforts from Chipotle, local and state health officials, and the CDC — which is using genetic testing to help the investigation — the source of the outbreak has yet to be pinpointed. The CDC's newest report notes that "a common meal item or ingredient ... is a likely source of this outbreak," but the investigation is ongoing.
It will remain to be seen exactly how much of an adverse effect the E. coli outbreak has on Chipotle's business: The burrito chain is currently facing three lawsuits from people who were sickened, with more likely to follow. But the bigger issue is whether or not the E. coli scare will hurt the overall reputation of the company, which boasts a slogan of "Food with integrity." Forbes has speculated that the outbreak could actually strengthen the brand, calling it "a huge opportunity" for Chipotle to make its restaurants and food safer. Meanwhile, Chipotle's stock is down nearly 10 percent following this news.
Update: Chipotle has released a statement, included in full, below:
CHIPOTLE UPDATES ON E. COLI INVESTIGATION
DENVER -- November 20, 2015 - Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG) continues to work closely with state and federal health officials, as the investigation continues into an E. coli incident initially linked to 11 Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reduced the number of cases connected to Chipotle from 50 to 37 cases on November 18 (with 24 in Washington and 13 in Oregon). This reduction of nearly 25% was based upon more sensitive testing which revealed the cases were not related to Chipotle. The CDC has informed Chipotle that it identified six additional cases in which initial testing matches the E. coli strain involved in the Washington and Oregon incident. Although one of the individuals has no known link to Chipotle, five individuals did report eating at Chipotle, including two in Turlock, Calif., one in Akron, Ohio, one in Amherst, NY, and one in Burnsville, Minn.
Investigators have suggested that in incidents like this, it is not unusual to see additional cases after the initial incident as the investigation moves forward. The source of the problem appears to have been contained during a period in late October. Forty-two of the 43 cases linked to Chipotle, reported visiting one of the restaurants in question between October 13 and October 30. One person reported having eaten November 6.
In response to this incident, Chipotle has taken aggressive steps to make sure its restaurants are as safe as possible. There have been no reported new cases in Washington or Oregon since Chipotle put its remediation plan into effect.
Specifically, the company conducted deep cleaning at the restaurants that have been linked to this incident, replacing ingredients in those restaurants, changing food preparation procedures, providing all necessary supply chain data to investigators, and surveying employees to be sure none have had any symptoms of illness (note: no Chipotle employees in any states have been ill related to this incident). Similar actions are immediately being taken in response to these newly reported cases.
Chipotle is also taking significant steps to be sure all of its food is as safe as possible. Specifically, the company is expanding testing of key ingredients, examining all of its food-safety procedures to find any opportunity for improvement, and is working with two renowned food safety scientists to assess all of its food safety programs, from the farms that provide its food to its restaurants.
"We take this incident very seriously because the safety of our food and wellbeing of our customers is always our highest priority," said Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. "We are committed to taking any and all necessary actions to make sure our food is as safe as possible, and we are working diligently with the health agencies."
"We offer our sincerest apologies to those who have been affected," said Ells. "We will leave no stone unturned to ensure the safety of our food - from enhancing the safety and quality assurance program for all of our fresh produce suppliers, to examining all of our food safety procedures from farm to restaurant, and expanding testing programs for produce, meat and dairy items before they are sent to our restaurants."
According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food-related illness in the U.S. annually, including 265,000 cases of E. coli.
Additional information about this incident is available online at Chipotle.com/update.