Chipotle probed for new outbreak of E. coli strain

Craig Giammona
Bloomberg News

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., still reeling from recent outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus at its restaurants, is now being investigated for its link to a new spate of illnesses in three additional states.

Five people in Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma have fallen ill from an E. coli strain with a rare DNA fingerprint, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday in a statement. All five, who became sick on dates ranging from Nov. 18 to Nov. 26, reported eating at a Chipotle in the week before their illnesses started.

The new report may further damage Chipotle’s reputation, which has been battered in recent weeks by an outbreak of E. coli that afflicted at least 53 people in nine states. That was followed by a norovirus contagion at a Boston location that sickened more than 140 college students. The company has estimated that sales will fall as much as 11 percent in the fourth quarter as the illnesses bring attention to the company’s food-safety struggles.

“Since this issue began, we have completed a comprehensive reassessment of our food safety programs with an eye to finding best practices for each of the ingredients we use,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said today in an e-mailed statement. “We are now in the process of implementing those programs.”

Chipotle’s shares slumped as much as 4.6 percent to $498.20 Tuesday in New York. The Denver-based company had dropped 24 percent this year through Monday’s close, pulled lower primarily by the food-safety issues.

Illnesses connected?

Chipotle said the three most recently reported illnesses all stemmed from two restaurants: one in Oklahoma and one in Kansas. Arnold added that the company thinks the illnesses are connected to the larger, previously reported outbreak.

“We believe they are related, and are working with the CDC and FDA while they investigate,” Arnold said.

The CDC released information about the new illnesses as part of an update on the wider outbreak. The agency said it was “investigating another, more recent outbreak of a different, rare DNA fingerprint Shiga toxin producing E. coli” linked to Chipotle.

“Because it is not known if these infections are related to the larger, previously reported outbreak, these illnesses are not being included in the case count for that outbreak,” the CDC said.

New procedures

After Chipotle was linked to the E. coli contagion in October, it temporarily shut down locations in Washington state and Oregon. The restaurant chain hired IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group to help refine its procedures. The company has revamped its supply chain and is conducting DNA testing of produce in an effort to keep food safe. The cause of the E. coli contagion still hasn’t been found.

Mansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories, said after the restaurants reopened that the new procedures made Chipotle an industry leader.

“While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero,” he said earlier this month.