The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating a new E. Coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. The restaurant chain is still recovering from the heat of the norovirus and E. Coli cases documented in October and November. The U.S. health agency said the new E. Coli has a rare DNA fingerprint.
Between Nov. 18 and 26, five people in Oklahoma, North Dakota and Kansas fell ill due to the new E. Coli strain. All five patients said they ate at a Chipotle branch a week before getting sick.
Chipotle has been linked to back-to-back E. Coli outbreaks in the last few months. The first outbreak sickened 53 people and spanned nine states across the U.S. Another outbreak sickened over 140 college students in Boston.
"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. We are now in the process of implementing those programs," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.
Chipotle At Higher Risks of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks
Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells expressed the company may not be able to trace which ingredient actually caused the illness. However, Ells mentioned the bacteria mostly likely came from fresh produce such as cilantro or tomato.
The company acknowledged they might be facing higher risks of foodborne illness outbreaks due to the use of fresh meat and produce rather than frozen supplies. Chipotle also rely on traditional cooking methods done by employees rather than automation.
These trends have played for Chipotle's marketing strengths. The company aims to distinguish their brand from competitors by focusing on freshly produced, quality foods.
Chipotle's Road To Rehabilitation
Chipotle took to the press and issued a public apology via full-page advertisements in 61 newspapers across the U.S. It remains unclear how Chipotle will bounce back from the back-to-back reputation damage surrounding the foodborne illness outbreaks.
The incidents led to the voluntary closing of Chipotle branches in the affected states. In October, Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in Washington and Portland, Seattle and Oregon areas.
Food poisoning attorney Bill Marler, who represents the sickened customers, noted Chipotle's current situation doesn't even come close to the 1993 E. Coli outbreak linked to the fast food chain Jack in the Box. The 1993 incident left hundreds sick and four dead.
Following the E. Coli outbreak in October, Chipotle enrolled IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group to help hone their food safety procedures. Apart from revamping their supply chain process, Chipotle is also conducting DNA tests on their produce to further ensure food safety.
"While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero," said IEH Laboratories Mansour Samadpour.
Photo: Mike Mozart | Flickr