Food poisoning outbreaks involving Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets are eroding its overall stock value, which last summer hit a per-share high of $756. The company’s shares closed Monday at $624, a drop of 2.5 percent.
Traded under the symbol “CMG” on the New York Stock Exchange, the “fast casual” restaurant chain has recently experienced three consecutive outbreaks involving three separate pathogens. It briefly closed a restaurant in Simi Valley, CA, in August after 82 customers and 17 employees were sickened by Norovirus. Then, in September, 22 Chipotle locations in the Minneapolis area were associated with a Salmonella Newport outbreak in which 64 people were sickened.
Another 43 Chipotle restaurants in Oregon and Washington state have now been closed since Oct. 31 because the chain has been associated with an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest.
The two-state investigation is now looking at what came into those restaurants that may have spread the contamination. Lettuce is high on the suspect list, according to Lane County, OR, environmental health staffer who commented on the investigation to Food Safety News.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Public Health Division, confirmed Monday that investigators are focusing in on contaminated produce.
“We are looking at everything, but our epidemiology investigation is guiding us toward produce,” Modie said. “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.”
Currently the closures in Oregon and Washington state account for only about 2 percent of Chipotle’s 1,931 locations nationwide. It is not known when those restaurants will reopen.
Health officials in the two states have tallied 22 cases of E. coli infection, including eight people who have been hospitalized. The illnesses since Oct. 14 have involved people ranging from 11 to 64 years old.
Northwest health officials say the number of people sickened by this outbreak is likely higher than that because it not uncommon for people affected with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli to go without seeing a doctor or other health care provider. They are anticipating that the outbreak numbers will increase as Chipotle customers in the affected areas learn about it and seek care.
People who should seek medical treatment and tell their doctor about the outbreak are those who dined at any of the Chipotle restaurants in the impacted counties between Oct. 14 and 23, 2015, and who subsequently became ill with vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
The targeted Chipotle locations are located in the Portland metropolitan area, including Oregon’s Clackamas and Washington counties, and Clark, King, Skagit, and Cowlitz counties in Washington state.
Most people infected with E. coli develop watery and/or bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 1-10 days, with the average being 3-4 days. Most illnesses resolve on their own within 7 days. Most people recover within a week but, rarely, some develop a severe type of kidney failure that can begin as the diarrhea is improving and is most common in children younger than five years old and the elderly.
The Oregon Health Authority, Washington State Department of Health, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working with the county health departments on the outbreak.
Until the recent outbreaks, analysts viewed Chipotle’s finances as strong, with the company focused on expansion to Canada and Europe and creation of a new Asian brand. The 22-year-old fast casual brand known for using locally sourced, responsibly raised and organic ingredients expanded its locations in the U.S. from 1998-2006 when McDonald’s was the majority owner of the Denver-based company. McDonald’s sold its Chipotle stock in 2006.
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