October 23, 2016

Will 2nd Chipotle E. coli Outbreak Help Identify Tainted Ingredient?

Chipotle Mexican GrillFive people in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota developed E. coli infections after eating at Chipotle restaurants in November. Their illnesses were caused by a different strain of E. coli than the one responsible for the ongoing nine-state outbreak that has sickened 53 people, so health officials are not sure if the cases are part of the same outbreak. Although the new illnesses are terrible news for those sickened and for the company,  could they be the key to solving the outbreak?

It’s been two months since the first outbreak was announced but health investigators still have no idea what the contaminated food source might be. That’s a bit of a head scratcher for armchair epidemiologists wondering how hard it can be to determine the commonly sourced ingredient in meals eaten by more than 50 people in nine states.

An ingredient in a burrito bowl was the source of illness for one Washington woman, according to a lawsuit. She ordered the meal from a Vancouver location on October 21 and began experiencing symptoms of an E. coli infection, including abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea about three days later

Symptoms of an E. coli infection,  including abdominal cramps, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and sometimes a fever of less than 101˚F,  usually develop one to three days after exposure and last about a week. Those at highest risk include children, seniors and those with compromised immune systems. By state, the case count is as follows: California (3), Illinois (1), Maryland (1), Minnesota (2), New York (1), Ohio (3), Oregon (13), Pennsylvania (2), and Washington (27).

Health officials initially thought the outbreak only involved Chipotle locations in Washington and Oregon. The company closed all locations in those states for 10 days while all of them were deep-cleaned, sanitized and supplied with new ingredients. The company tested all fresh produce, raw meat, and dairy items before re-stocking. The company also tested all employees for E. coli infections;  there were no positives, an indicator that food was contaminated before it entered the restaurants.

Chipotle retained Seattle-based IEH Laboratories to help it identify opportunities to enhance food safety practices throughout its operations.  Those measure had likely not been implemented at all locations at the time of the illnesses.

The 53 illnesses included in the outbreak were matched through genetic fingerprinting tests of the E. coli O26 bacteria. The five new illnesses were also caused by E. coli O26, but a different even more rare strain which could make it easier to trace back to its source.

The Kansas case patient, from Johnson County and the North Dakota case patient both ate at the same Chipotle in Shawnee, Kansas before becoming ill. The three Oklahoma cases are all linked to a Chipotle in the city of Norman near the University of Oklahoma’s campus.

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