Escherichia coli Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants

Since the primary obligation of food technologists is to ensure a safe food supply, it is instructive to understand and determine what lessons can be learned from foodborne illness outbreaks. With this in mind, I followed the multistate foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill in 2015.

Some of the details of the case can be found in the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, “Multistate Outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 (STEC O26) Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants” at http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2015/o26-11-15/

As of December 22, 2015, the CDC was tracking two different outbreaks of STEC O26 linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. The most recent was an outbreak in three states: Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. The Kansas and North Dakota cases ate at the same restaurant in Kansas. The three separate Oklahoma cases all ate at the same Chipotle restaurant. In the earlier outbreak, 53 people were infected with a different strain of STEC O26 across nine states. Twenty ill people have been hospitalized. There have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths. The majority of illnesses have been reported from Washington and Oregon during October 2015.

At this time, the epidemiologic evidence suggests that a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in several states is a likely source of the outbreak. The investigation has not identified what specific food is linked to illness. In the earlier outbreak, of the 52 ill people interviewed, 46 reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in the week before their illness started. In the second outbreak, the Kansas and North Dakota cases ate at the same restaurant in Kansas. The three separate Oklahoma cases all ate at the same Chipotle restaurant.

Chipotle Mexican Grill chain is assisting public health officials with understanding the distribution of food items served at locations where ill people ate, and this work is ongoing.

Separately, Chipotle is under investigation by federal authorities concerning a norovirus outbreak at a California location in August 2015 that sickened 234 people, including 17 employees.

Such a large number of illnesses and problems at different locations indicate a serious issue. According to a press release from Chipotle, the company is updating their food safety program and doing a comprehensive assessment of their practices. The company is partnering with a Seattle-based food safety testing and consulting group called: IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group.

The food safety steps they are taking include: enhanced safety testing of ingredients using a series of DNA-based tests on ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants; a thorough review of how each ingredient in the restaurant is handled and prepared; enhanced employee food safety training; and more frequent food safety audits, including third-party assessments.

More information on Chipotle’s food safety measures can be found at the company press release here: http://chipotle.com/food-safety?_ga = 1.178807140.156192303.1451321491

Also, here is the website of the IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group: http://www.iehinc.com/

Recently, the U.S. Justice Dept. has increased its enforcement of food safety laws, including several with record fines and prosecutions. The past year included a case where a former owner of a food company, Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison. A prison term was also given to a QA manager in the case. Another recent example is that the Justice Dept. launched a criminal investigation of Blue Bell Creameries LP over listeria contamination that was linked to three deaths and multiple illnesses.

The  Journal of Food Science has a regular section, Food Microbiology and Safety, featuring studies on food safety. One example highlighted here is on microbiology of par-fired potatoes. Other studies highlighted this month include a study on consumer acceptance of soymilk; the use of MSG, and successful sensory testing.

From Industrial Application Briefs: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1750-3841.13025/full

 

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