An outbreak of E. coli has lead to the temporary closure of 43 Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon Public Health Division stated that the outbreak had likely been caused by contaminated produce.
A spokesperson from the Oregon Public Health Division, Jonathan Modie, said that as of Monday they had received at least 100 phone calls and emails from people claiming to have become ill after recently eating at a Chipotle restaurant. As of now, state officials have only confirmed three cases of E. coli.
“We are looking at everything, but our epidemiology investigation is guiding us toward produce,” Modie told reporters. “Chipotle has meat products, but based on things we heard from people who got sick…it seems like the most common denominator is some kind of vegetable course.”
The incident appears to have affected the company’s stocks, with shares in the fast-food chain falling by about 2.5% on Monday. The chain had already been seeing choppy sales before the outbreak, but the food safety scare certainly is not helping with the company’s growth.
According to company spokesperson Chris Arnold, Chipotle has opted to close all 43 restaurants in Oregon and Washington as a precaution. He went on to further state that illnesses have only been reported from 8 restaurants as of now.
As for the cause of the outbreak, Arnold said, “Produce is certainly a possibility, but we are not going to speculate on what the cause may be while the investigation is going on.”
The Washington State Department of Health is yet to confirm what the cause of the E. coli outbreak is, but they are continuing to investigate.
So far, cases of illness have been reported from restaurants in Clackamas and Washington counties, Oregon and Clark, King, Skagit and Cowlitz counties in Washington. More reports of illness are expected to appear as more people experience symptoms. It can take symptoms up to ten days to present themselves, and by that time people may not connect the illness with its true cause.
This is the third time this year that Chipotle has dealt with a food safety incident.
In August, a restaurant in Simi Valley, California was closed after 80 customers and 18 employees were exposed to Norovirus. The restaurant was reopened following a deep clean of the entire facility.
That same month, 17 Chipotle restaurants in the Twin Cities area reported a salmonella outbreak. Health officials concluded that the outbreak was caused by contaminated tomatoes. Sixty four customers were affected, 9 of which were hospitalized for their symptoms.
Chipotle is known for presenting itself as a healthy fast food option. It was the first major national restaurant chain to eliminate genetically-modified ingredients from the majority of its menu. However, the latest food safety scare may have done quite the number on Chipotle’s reputation. Corporate offices will have to do some damage control in order to limit the impact of this most recent outbreak and prevent a similar situation from happening again.