As of Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating five new E. coli cases linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill, according to a report by CNN.
Stephanie Strom of the New York Times reported that the Mexican-style eatery’s stock has fallen as it was reported by the CDC that five people became ill after eating food contaminated with E. coli STEC 026 at two Chipotle restaurants in Kansas and Oklahoma. And USA Today reported that the issues occurred between Nov. 18 and Nov. 26, and another case was reported in North Dakota.
The DNA of the bacteria is said to be different in this outbreak than the previous ones, but Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the CDC, noted that both types of the same bacteria are rare. In fact, the type of E. coli involved in Chiptole’s earlier outbreak was only seen three times before.
“One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate,” said Williams. “But because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what is in common across all those restaurants.”
Chipotle’s communications director Chris Arnold said that in response to the new E. coli cases, the chain is making improvements to the testing of ingredients and increasing food safety training for its employees with the help of outside food safety experts. Arnold said all of this is to ensure a “near zero” safety risk for its customers.
“Since this issue began, we have completed a comprehensive reassessment of our food safety programs with an eye to finding best practices for each of the ingredients we use,” said Arnold, in an interview for CNN.
These new E. coli cases are just another blow to Chipotle, who faced a previous E. coli outbreak in October. Those cases were reported primarily in Washington and Oregon, while smaller number of cases were reported in California, New York, and Ohio to name a few. Earlier this month, around 140 people suffered gastrointestinal illness from eating at a Chipotle in Boston, said to be caused by the norovirus. Also reported was an outbreak of Salmonella linked to the chain in September when health officials declared that tomatoes were the cause. Despite all this, no deaths have been reported so far.
Meanwhile, Chipotle’s stock has been downgraded to “neutral” by JP Morgan’s John Ivankoe, after falling more than 4 percent today.
“At this point, even rational and informed consumers could potentially be given reason to pause when choosing Chipotle over the plethora of fast-casual competition in the marketplace,” said Ivankoe in an article on CNBC. “This new case was not contemplated in our previous investment thesis.”
Chipotle’s CEO Steve Ells has spoken to media outlets offering an apology for people getting sick earlier this month and posted an open letter on the restaurant chain’s official website titled “Comprehensive Food Safety Plan.”
“The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry,” said Ells, who noted that the chain needs to do better in regard to food safety. “As a result, we are committed to becoming known as the leader in food safety, just as we are known for using the very best ingredients in a fast food setting.”
In response to the news, CNBC is holding a poll asking readers if they are scared of eating at Chipotle because of the new E. coli cases and where they would go to eat as an alternative.
Adam Clark Estes published an article for the website Gizmodo, saying that Chipolte’s new E. coli cases has scared him and citing the chain’s farming system as an issue, calling it “faulty.”
“It’s honestly terrifying to see how the systemic failure of the chain’s progressive sourcing strategy can cause real harm to people,” said Estes. “Chipotle loves to brag about buying local and organic ingredients, but what the ads don’t tell you is that Chipotle knows this decision makes its food less safe. Now, we know why.”
The question remains: Will Chipotle’s reputation be able to bounce back after these new E. coli cases?
(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)