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Chipotle E. Coli Outbreak Spreads To Six States

Steve Ells, center, CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, eats at a Chipotle location in New York in 2008. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK LENNIHAN
Steve Ells, center, CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, eats at a Chipotle location in New York in 2008. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK LENNIHAN

Forty-five people in six different states have contracted food poisoning after eating at a Chipotle restaurant this fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most cases, 26, were in Washington State. The CDC also reported two cases in California, two in Minnesota, two in New York, one in Ohio, and 13 in Oregon. At least 16 people have been hospitalized.

The outbreak occurred between October 19 and November 8 — but the number might continue to rise. Officials said that due to the lag in reporting data, new cases that occurred after October 31 are still possible.

This is not Chipotle’s first run-in with food-borne illness. The company is already facing lawsuits from two recent incidents: In August, more than 100 people at a Chipotle in Simi Valley, CA, contracted norovirus (often called stomach flu). In that same month, 45 people in Minnesota got sick from salmonella-tainted tomatoes traced to 22 different Chipotle locations.

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In the most recent outbreak, the company closed more than 40 locations in Oregon and Washington, which have since reopened. It has not yet been determined what the source of the E. coli is.

E. coli is a common, diverse bacteria. Some strains are perfectly safe — and, in fact, live in the human body — while others can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Heat kills E. coli, so the latest outbreak will likely be traced to a vegetable or other unheated product on the Chipotle menu.

Chipotle’s shares are down almost 19 percent since the beginning of the year, the BBC reported.

Foodborne illness has become an almost routine part of American life in recent years. The CDC found that major, multi-state outbreaks have tripled over the past two decades. There are generally three reasons we’re seeing more outbreaks. Firstly, we’re simply seeing them more. Tracking and reporting have improved, so illnesses that might have not been recognized as part of a bigger outbreak are being noticed. But the other two reasons, industrial agriculture and a globalized food chain, are much more worrying. Bacteria in processing plants both touches more food and can be more broadly distributed.

A 2011 law, the Food Safety Modernization Act, gave the Food and Drug Administration powers to help protect the public from tainted food, including authorities for mandatory recalls. But it has not lived up to its promise. Congress has dramatically underfunded programs: Out of the $580 million estimated to be needed to be effective, they have received less than half that amount.