Eighty Boston College students became sick after eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant over the weekend, and early test results reveal that the highly contagious norovirus may be responsible, public health investigators said Tuesday.
Chipotle is already dealing with major grief and criticism from their multi-state E. coli outbreak that has largely affected the burrito chain’s stock price and sales. Chipotle temporarily closed its Cleveland Circle restaurant where the ill Boston College students ate.
The sick students are being tested for both norovirus and E. coli, which can both cause diarrhea and vomiting. A university spokesman said that the test results will not be ready for a couple of days, according to Reuters.
Chipotle said Tuesday that it would not close any other locations in Boston. “The pattern here looks like norovirus isolated to one restaurant,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said.
So what is norovirus?
It is the most common cause of disease outbreaks from food in the U.S. It is capable of making as many as 21 million people each year, usually in places where people live in close quarters (universities, hospitals, etc.). A food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, Benjamin Chapman, said that norovirus can exist in an environment for as many as six weeks.
“Every time you have a vomit event, you’re looking at billions of (virus) particles, and it takes only a few to make you sick,” said Chapman. He added that it was too soon to tell if the students got norovirus at Chipotle.
The burrito chain has been under scrutiny since the end of October when it was connected to an E. coli outbreak that caused 52 people in nine states to fall ill. The latest incident was the companies third food safety issue since August. In August, norovirus was responsible for sickening almost 100 people at a Chipotle location in Simi Valley, Calif.
Crisis management professionals explain that the restaurant’s response to their recent food safety incidents are not enough. “They’re not going far enough,” Gene Grabowski, who runs the crisis group at kglobal, told CNBC.
“They’re not painting pictures with their words,” he explained. “They’re still doing too much explaining.” He continued by saying that they were “playing defense” and that the key is to “go on the offensive.”
Chipotle responded to the criticism:
“I think it’s very easy to armchair quarterback these things and say a company should have done this, or could have done that better,” spokesman Chris Arnold wrote in an email. “The fact is, since this incident began, we have taken swift and decisive actions to limit the spread of it, offered our sincerest apologies to people who have been affected, worked diligently with health officials to investigate, been extremely transparent and forthcoming with new information at every turn, retained nationally renowned food safety experts to work with us to reassess our practices with an eye to making improvements in any way we can, and shared details of an enhanced food safety plan to be sure our food and our restaurants are as safe as possible going forward.”