The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says two E. coli outbreaks connected to Chipotle Mexican Grill appear to be over. However, even after a three-month investigation, the ingredient responsible for the contamination has never been identified.
Since the end of October, at least 55 people were sickened by an E. coli outbreak that stretched across 11 states, according to the CDC. A second outbreak in December caused another five people in three states to become ill from a different strain of the virus. Fortunately, no cases of kidney failure or deaths were reported in either outbreak.
An investigation conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, as well as health authorities in several states linked the E. coli infections to Chipotle. However, the CDC said today no new cases have been reported since December 21 and has now ended the federal examination into the restaurant.
“We are pleased that the CDC has concluded its investigation, and we have offered our full cooperation throughout,” Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, said in a statement. “Over the past few months we have taken significant steps to improve the safety of all of the food we serve, and we are confident that the changes we have made mean that every item on our menu is delicious and safe.”
In January, Chipotle executives announced the company will strive to reduce the risk of another food contamination scare to “near zero.” The chain is increasing its marketing and direct mail offers to encourage customers to come back.
Meanwhile, the company is dealing with at least nine lawsuits related to the food contamination and more are coming. Bill Marler, a food safety attorney in Seattle, says he represents 75 people who are getting ready to file additional claims.
In addition to the E. coli contamination, a norovirus outbreak connected to the burrito restaurant sickened 120 Boston College students in early December. Chipotle is also undergoing a criminal investigation related to an August norovirus occurrence at a store in California.
The Mexican restaurant will close all of its stores for one day, February 8, for a company-wide meeting.
“We are hosting a national team meeting to thank our employees for their hard work through this difficult time, discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees,” Arnold said.
Despite the scrutiny for months from investors and the CDC, Chipotle continues to have a loyal customer base. NPD Group, which tracks consumer awareness of food safety issues, says teens and young adults have not been discouraged from eating at the restaurant.
Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with NPD Group, says the majority of Chipotle customers are young adults willing to look past the previous contamination problems, but the chain still has some ground to make up to regain consumer confidence.
“Their willingness to overlook any food safety concerns to eat at Chipotle could be a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness. What our research tells us is that Chipotle has a strong loyal base from which to build its business back up relatively quickly. To win back the trust of their former customers, Chipotle will need to continually communicate all of the ways in which they are preventing any future outbreaks and prove to them that they able to deliver on their ‘food with integrity’ promise.”
With the end of the investigation from the CDC, Chipotle stock price surged five percent on the news. USA Today reports that the price hovered around $474.23 a share in afternoon trading, which is still down almost half from its all-time high set last year.
The Denver-based Mexican restaurant chain has made significant changes to its food safety procedures, including chopping some vegetables at one central location and blanching onions to kill germs. While multiple food items were collected and tested from Chipotle, CDC officials were unable to verify the presence of any E. coli bacteria in any particular ingredient.
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