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Publisher’s Platform: Could announcing July E. coli outbreak have prevented Chipolte’s fall

Opinion

Yesterday, with the announcement of an expanded criminal investigation and slumping sales, combined with a stock price creeping slightly back up from the bottom after a multi-billion dollar free fall, it does make you wonder if Chipotle could have turned its bus around before it drove off this cliff?

Now it could be facing criminal charges, a stockholder’s lawsuit, and the lawsuits and probable lawsuits in multiple states from the nearly 500 customers from six foodborne illness outbreak in the last several months.  As I said to the Oregonian back in early November:

Chipotle has had three known outbreaks this year [norovirus outbreak in Simi Valley that sickened 234, Salmonella outbreak in Minnesota that sickened 64 and an E. coli O26 outbreak that has of late sickened 55], including the most recent one in Oregon and Washington. But there was also a fourth in Seattle [in July 2015] that put two people [sickened 5] in the hospital.

Health officials, who investigated the outbreak, did not inform the public.

“I find that completely, unequivocally wrong,” said Bill Marler, a food safety litigator in Seattle. “They have a responsibility to the public.”

Public health officials in Seattle said that by the time they figured out that Chipotle was responsible, the outbreak had ended.

“It took us a while to make the connection between the sick people and Chipotle,” James Apa, spokesman for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in an email. “By the time we were able to make an association with Chipotle, the outbreak was over.”

And, the Oregonian story was before the announcement of yet another E. coli O26 outbreak that sickened 5 and a Boston norovirus outbreak that sickened 140.

You have to wonder if public health – and Chipotle – had made an announcement in July that people were sickened in Seattle (at the store where my college-aged daughters used to be customers), if Chipotle would have found its new-found interest in safer food before more people were sickened, its stock price sank, the U.S. Attorneys arrived with subpoeans, and the stockholders and customers began filing lawsuits?  My strong feeling is that they both wish that they had been more transparent and not covered-up information from the public that it clearly has a right to know.  Failing to disclose undercut public health’s credibility and gave cover to Chipotle to continue to ignore its lack of interest if safer food.

Here are some of the details of the July outbreak that we received from the Washington State Department of Health:

In early August 2015, Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) investigated an outbreak of E. coli O157 that occurred among five patrons of Chipotle Mexican Grill located at 1415 Broadway in Seattle, Washington. Illness onset dates occurred on July 28, 2015 (1 case), July 29 (2 cases) and July 31 (2 cases). All five cases reported experiencing diarrhea that turned bloody and abdominal cramps. Two cases reported vomiting. Two cases reported fever. Three cases were hospitalized. Two sought treatment at an emergency department. None of the patients developed HUS. There were no deaths.

The Washington Department of Health Public Health Laboratory conducted genetic testing by PFGE on isolates cultured from patients’ specimens.  Test results showed that all were infected with an indistinguishable genetic strain assigned PulseNet Identification Numbers EXHX01.0012/EXHA26.1779. This strain had not been seen previously in King County.

Ill customers reported eating different menu items. But common ingredients included cilantro lime rice, pico de gallo, beans, guacamole, and corn. PHSKC environmental specialists conducted an onsite field investigation. No critical violations were observed. All ten employees submitted stool specimens for testing. And all were negative for enteric pathogens. The outbreak was reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a brief summary report was prepared. See Washington Department of Health general outbreak records.

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PHSKC has yet to respond to my FOIA request.

 

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