Chipotle's E. coli scare has been declared over, but still no one knows where the dangerous bacteria that landed 21 people in the hospital came from. Or at least, that's the official word from the Centers for Disease Control, the agency that led the investigation into the foodborne illness outbreak. But according to a report published last night by the Wall Street Journal, the burrito chain believes "the E. coli was most likely from contaminated Australian beef," and that the bacteria "spread to other ingredients through improper food handling."
The WSJ attributes this information to "people familiar with Chipotle." Importing grass-fed Australian beef was a relatively new practice for the company, having just begun in 2014 (and much to the chagrin of American beef producers).
While the CDC's official conclusion was that the outbreak source was unknown, many — including the government agency itself, says the Journal — believe it likely stemmed from contaminated produce. Produce such as spinach, sprouts, and lettuce have been responsible for a number of E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years, including a 2006 outbreak linked to spinach that killed three people.
The report offers further insight into how Chipotle allegedly came to such a conclusion:
When the CDC on Nov. 20 reported the outbreak had spread to Minnesota, California, New York and Ohio, Chipotle's distribution records convinced the company the culprit was red onions, cilantro or beef, said people familiar with its investigation. Onions seemed unlikely to Chipotle, because its supplier shipped much of its harvest to other restaurants, but no illnesses tied to them had been reported.
Two weeks later, the CDC reported cases in Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Chipotle crossed cilantro off the list, because it used a different cilantro supplier in Illinois. That left beef. As not all sickened customers ate beef, it could have caused the outbreak only if E. coli bacteria passed from the meat to other ingredients through improper food handling.
But as the story notes, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not believe beef could have been the culprit: "Distribution data shared by Chipotle does not establish a link between Australian beef, or any single source of beef, and the Chipotle restaurants where case patients reported consuming steak," the agency is quoted as saying.
Reached for comment by Eater, Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold would say only, "The investigation is over and no cause was determined."
On Tuesday, the company's first quarterly earnings call since the outbreaks began revealed that January's same-store sales were down a whopping 36 percent from last year, and that an estimated 60 percent of Chipotle's most loyal, longtime customers were actively avoiding the chain. Its turnaround plan includes stricter food safety protocols and a $50 million marketing campaign — but despite its recent troubles, the company will forge ahead with opening new locations this year.