Chipotle’s Mass Restaurant Closings And America’s Broken Food Safety System

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Dozens of Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon are temporarily closing due to an outbreak of E. coli. Health officials have linked 19 cases in Washington and three in Oregon to Chipotles in those states. Eight people have been hospitalized: Seven from Washington, one from Oregon.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, though the outbreak appears to be connected to food served at Chipotle, the specific source of contamination has yet to be determined and is still under investigation. The restaurants have closed voluntarily while awaiting updated information.

In a statement, State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist implored anyone who thinks they may have fallen sick from eating at Chipotle within the past three weeks should consult a healthcare provider, particularly “the elderly and very young children,” who “are more likely to become severely ill from this kind of E. coli infection.”

The investigation is being conducted by local and state health officials along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Washington State Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chipotle is already facing lawsuits from two recent foodborne-illness-related incidents. In August, over 100 people — 82 Chipotle customers and 17 employees — at one Chipotle in Simi Valley, CA, fell ill from norovirus infections. (Fun symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.) To amend health code violations, the restaurant closed for a day. In that same month, 22 Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota were found to be the source of an outbreak of salmonella Newport bacteria. Health officials determined that tomatoes were the cause of the outbreak; over 45 cases were reported.

Meanwhile, the Food Safety Modernization Act — the 2011 piece of legislation that gives the FDA mandatory recall authority, as well as expanded regulatory powers — requires $580 million to be effective, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But Congress has provided less than half that amount. As ThinkProgress reported earlier this year, agency officials say this budget shortfall “undermines their efforts to significantly improve the food safety system that has failed to prevent nearly 48 million foodborne illnesses annually, nearly 3,000 of which result in death.”

Chipotle’s communications director, Chris Arnold, said in a statement that only six different restaurants appear to be the source of this E. coli outbreak and that they’ve closed over 40 locations out of an abundance of caution. “The safety and wellbeing of our customers is always our highest priority. We offer our deepest sympathies to those who have been affected by this situation.”