No one was answering the phone at the Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tripleseven Road in Sterling, VA, Tuesday evening and no one from the chain’s corporate headquarters in Denver was answering questions about when they might reopen the location, which is implicated in an ongoing foodborne illness outbreak.

Earlier in the day the corporation’s public relations staff issued a statement attributed to Jim Marsden, Chipotle’s executive director for food safety, acknowledging the outbreak and indicating the restaurant, which was voluntarily closed Monday, would reopen Tuesday.

Public health officials with Loudoun County and the state of Virginia are investigating the outbreak, which was identified after Chipotle customers reported becoming sick on the website. But the restaurant is not obligated to seek approval before reopening.

“Since the restaurant closed voluntarily, they do not need our permission to reopen,” said Dr. David Goodfriend, who has been director of the Loudoun County Health Department since 2001.

“That said, they have been working closely with us and accepting our recommendations. … We are currently working with the facility to follow up on the patrons’ concerns and to determine how best to go forward. At this point we are not aware of health related concerns associated with other Chipotle locations.”

Neither Goodfriend nor state health officials answered specific questions about the investigation, including whether food samples or environmental swab samples from the restaurant are being tested for foodborne pathogens. According to Chipotle’s statement, the victims’ symptoms are consistent with norovirus.

“The main testing will be stool samples and we hope to have several collected and sent for testing this week,” Goodfriend said.

Although Chipotle’s top food safety executive reported “norovirus does not come from our food supply, and it is safe to eat at Chipotle,” Goodfriend cited information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that identifies foodborne transmission as a frequent route for the highly contagious virus.

“Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States,” according to the CDC. “Most of these outbreaks occur in the food service settings like restaurants. Infected food workers are frequently the source of the outbreaks, often by touching ready-to-eat foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, with their bare hands before serving them.

“However, any food served raw or handled after being cooked can get contaminated with norovirus.  Norovirus outbreaks can also occur from foods, such as oysters, fruits, and vegetables, that are contaminated at their source.”

Déjà vu in a burrito bowl
With more than a dozen people reporting they got sick after eating at the Sterling, VA, Chipotle location on Friday and Saturday, the chain with more than 2,200 locations saw its stock drop sharply Tuesday. It fell more than $17 per share, or about 4.3 percent, to $374.98 when the closing bell rang at the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s just 50 percent of its all-time closing high of $757.77, which Chipotle recorded on Aug. 5, 2015, as a series of foodborne illnesses linked to multiple locations was beginning. The Denver-based chain struggled the following year, but closed just under $380 at the end of December 2016.

Public relations and advertising campaigns have failed to work the magic promised by founder Steve Ells. The company is scheduled to report second-quarter financial information on July 25.

The string of outbreaks traced to Chipotle restaurants during the last half of 2015 included:

  • Seattle — E. coli O157:H7, July 2015, five people, source unknown;
  • Simi Valley, CA — Norovirus, August 2015, 234 people, source was sick employee;
  • Minnesota — Salmonella Newport, August and September 2015, 64 sick people, source was tomatoes but it is not known at what point in the field-to-fork chain the pathogen was introduced;
  • Nine states — E. coli O26, began October 2015 and declared over on Feb. 1, 2016, 55 people, source unknown, states involved were California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington;
  • Boston — Norovirus, December 2015, 151 sick people, source was sick employee; and,
  • Three states — E. coli O26, began December 2015, declared over Feb. 1, 2016, five sickened people, source unknown, states involved are Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Crowdsourcing site detected outbreak
Similar to the outbreaks in 2015, Chipotle customers took to the internet when they became ill. The crowdsourcing website logged eight complaints on Sunday and Monday about the restaurant in Sterling, VA. The complaints reported 13 sick people, including two hospitalizations, according to Business Insider, which broke the news story Tuesday morning.

As Tuesday wore on, more customers who ate at the implicated Chipotle restaurant in Virginia posted reports on the website, founded by food poisoning victim Patrick Quade. Since its creation, has partnered with state and local health departments to help identify foodborne outbreaks related to restaurants.

“Virginia state subscribes to us and gets daily alerts,” Quade said Tuesday. “But I gave them an early heads up, too.

“We’re the largest independent food safety issue reporting site, which means we’re often the first to see issues emerge.

“We actively moderate the reports to ensure our data is of the highest quality possible, and have been working for many years with public health agencies and food service companies to take steps to reduce the number of foodborne illness incidents. With technology, we can make eating out a lot safer.”

Quade contends can serve as an early warning system for companies, allowing them to identify potential foodborne illness outbreaks as soon as possible so they can take action more quickly.

Restaurant’s inspection history
Restaurant inspectors from the Loudoun County Health Department didn’t find any reportable problems during their most recent trip to the Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tripleseven Road in Sterling, VA, which was April 21 this year.

However, inspection reports dating back to 2012 show problems over the years. Following are highlights from those reports:

  • April 21, 2017 – Routine, No items found.
  • Dec. 5, 2016 – Routine, No items found.
  • Aug. 4, 2016 – Routine, No items found.
  • March 15, 2016 – Routine, 1 critical violation, 1 repeat violation — Several fruitflies were noted in the establishment.
  • May 6, 2015 – Routine, 2 critical violations, 2 repeat violations —  Employees or applicants are not aware of the reporting procedures concerning information about their health and activities if they are suspected of causing, or being exposed to a confirmed disease outbreak caused by Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157:H7, Hepatitis A virus or norovirus.
    Ground beef and beans held at improper temperatures, registering at 44 degrees F in walk in refrigerator. Operators must maintain the temperature of cold holding potentially hazardous food less or at 41 degrees F.
  • Jan. 23, 2015 – Complaint – customer reported becoming ill after dining at the restaurant, which she reported had dirty restrooms. No items found. Complaint closed.
  • Nov. 20, 2014 – Routine, 1 critical violation — Several fruitflies were noted in dishwashing area in the establishment.
  • April 4, 2014 – Risk Factor, 2 critical violations, 1 non-critical violation —
    Employee observed drinking from an uncovered container in the food preparation area. Operator voluntarily discarded said container.
    Shredded pork held at improper temperatures, testing at 71 degrees F in walk in refrigerator. Operator voluntarily discarded said food.
    No disposable towels were provided at the hand washing lavatory in the kitchen. Hand drying devices such as individual disposable paper towels, a continuous towel system that supplies the user with a clean towel or heated air hand drying device must be provided at all hand washing lavatories to encourage proper hand washing and avoid employees to drying their hands on their clothing or other unclean materials
  • Oct. 10, 2013 – Routine, 3 critical violations, 2 non-critical violations — Employees or applicants are not aware of the reporting procedures concerning information about their health and activities as they relate to diseases that are transmissible through food, including the date of onset of jaundice or of an illness due to Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157:H7, Hepatitis A virus or norovirus.
    Wiping cloths improperly stored between use. Operator must ensure wet wiping cloths are stored in a chemical sanitizer at the proper concentration between uses.
    Chicken held at improper temperatures, registering at 122-128 degrees F in hot holding unit in kitchen. Operator voluntarily discarded said food.
    Prechilled diced tomatoes held at improper temperatures, registering at 48-50 degrees F in walk in refrigerator and front line.
    The cutting boards on the drying rack are heavily scratched, scored and discolored. The food contact surface is no longer easily cleaned and sanitized due to condition.
  • Dec. 12, 2012 – Routine, No items found.

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