December 4, 2016

Why Did Norovirus Outbreak Spark Criminal Probe of Chipotle?

Chipotle Mexican GrillOf all of the recent Chipotle food poisoning outbreaks, including a Salmonella outbreak and an E. coli outbreak a norovirus outbreak seems the least likely to trigger a criminal probe. But it has. The question is why?

Norovirus outbreaks are common. In fact, about 60 percent of all food poisoning outbreaks are caused caused by Norovirus. And no information publicly released about the Simi Valley outbreak suggests it was unusual.

Yet, in December, Chipotle was served with a federal subpoena as part of a criminal investigation of an August 2015 Norovirus outbreak at one of its restaurants in Simi Valley, California. About 80 customers and almost 20 employees were were sickened.

After the illnesses occurred on August 18 and August 19, the restaurant, on the 1200 block of Simi Town Center Way, closed for one day while food was discarded and the restaurant was cleaned. It reopened, and then notified local health officials about the problem.

Even after the cleaning, health inspectors found some food safety violations including dirty restrooms; unsanitary floors, walls ceilings; utensils and equipment that were not clean or not properly maintained and some workers who did not have valid food handler cards.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Office of Criminal Investigations are conducting the investigation.

“Criminal prosecutions in foodborne illness outbreaks are very rare,” said Ryan Osterholm, a food safety attorney. “In this case, the restaurant may have created a problem for itself when it notified health officials after discarding food and cleaning the restaurant. If those actions have caught the attention of law enforcement, the entire food service industry should be closely monitoring this case.”

Highly contagious norovirus sickens about 20 million Americans every year. Symptoms, which include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and abdominal cramps, usually develop within 12 to 48 hours of exposure and last up to three days.

It takes just a small amount of norovirus to make someone sick. The amount of norovirus that fits on the head of a pin is enough to make 1,000 people sick.

About 65 percent of norovirus outbreaks happen at restaurants and originate from an infected food worker. The virus is transmitted when a food handler who has been sick has microscopic amounts of vomit or stool on his or her hands and touches food that is eaten by someone else or contaminates a food preparation area by touching it.

The Simi Valley Norovirus outbreak is one in a string of food poisoning outbreaks recently linked to Chipotle including an ongoing nine-state E. coli outbreak that has sickened 52 people hospitalizing 20 of them. The food source of the E. coli outbreak has not been identified.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Washington woman who developed an E. coli infection after eating a burrito bowl she ordered from a Vancouver location on October 21.  She began experiencing symptoms of an E. coli infection, including abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea about three days later.

In December, a Norovirus outbreak at the Cleveland Circle Chipotle in Boston sickened 141 Boston College students, including members of the basketball team who missed a game because of their illnesses. In August, Chipotle was linked to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 60 people in Minnesota. Tomatoes grown in Florida were identified as the source of that outbreak.

 

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