This has not been a good week for America's favorite burrito chain, Chipotle. The company abruptly shut down 43 locations in Oregon and Washington state earlier this week when 22 people were hospitalized for E. coli infections, which can cause severe intestinal distress and death. Though no one has died, an additional 15 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control late yesterday.
In a release addressing the public's concerns over the company's health, safety, and cleanliness practices, Chipotle announced it has hired two food safety consulting firms — one of which is Seattle-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group — "to help the company assess and improve upon its already high standards for food safety." Chipotle has assured the public it is deep cleaning its restaurants and cooperating with authorities investigating the matter. The company has been forthright and responsive in its handling of this disaster, though there is concern over how it allowed certain locations to even operate when cleanliness was clearly an issue.
Why did Chipotle allow certain locations to operate when cleanliness was clearly an issue?
A day after the outbreak was reported, Chipotle was hit with what is probably the first in a series of lawsuits it will face as a result of this health scare. Charmaine Mode, a resident of Washington state, is suing Chipotle for negligence to the tune of $75,000 "to cover medical expenses, lost wages, and other damages resulting from the infection." Yelp reviews for the Chipotle location Mode ate at include startling notes: "Don't waste your time ordering online to-go unless you like cold food that's been sitting for 15 minutes in a fast food type heater fridge," and "Dirty tables and overflowing garbage are something we encounter often."
Chipotle further explains that it is "conducting environmental testing in its restaurants, and food testing in its restaurants and distribution centers" in addition to the testing that is being carried out by health department officials. Needless to say, all of the food at these locations has been tested and discarded; every Chipotle location is "batch testing some ingredients before resupplying."
Of note, only 8 restaurants out of the 43 that have been closed were cited as sources of the outbreak, which may also be linked to other, non-Chipotle foodservice establishments or even grocery stories. The source of the tainted food has not yet been determined.
Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, released this statement: "The safety of our customers and integrity of our food supply has always been our highest priority. We work with a number of very fresh ingredients in order to serve our customers the highest-quality, best-tasting food we can. If there are opportunities to do better, we will push ourselves to find them and enhance our already high standards for food safety. Our deepest sympathies go out to those who have been affected by this situation and it is our greatest priority to ensure the safety of all of the food we serve and maintain our customers' confidence in eating at Chipotle."