Boston Health Officials: Norovirus Is Behind Chipotle Outbreak Sickening Dozens

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A man walks near a closed Chipotle restaurant earlier this month in Cleveland Circle. (Steven Senne/AP)
A man walks near a closed Chipotle restaurant earlier this month in Cleveland Circle. (Steven Senne/AP)

 Updated December 10, 2015, 7:24 am

Boston public health officials now confirm that norovirus is responsible for the gastrointestinal illness that has sickened scores of people who ate at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in Brighton.

Boston College says more than 120 students are ill.

The Boston Public Health Commission says tests identify a single strain of norovirus responsible for the dozens of people with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Although the cause has been narrowed down, the outbreak is expanding.

“We’re beginning to see cases that didn’t eat at Chipotle, but might be a roommate of someone who ate at Chipotle and got ill,” said Dr. Anita Barry, Boston’s top public health official.

Barry says the symptoms are strong, but last only for a few days. That’s much better, she says, than the longer-term and more threatening cases of food poisoning that have hit Chipotle restaurants in other states recently.

“People were initially concerned that this was related to a different organism, bacteria called E. coli. That’s clearly not the case here. It is definitely related to norovirus,” she said.

Boston inspectors have temporarily closed the restaurant. It had passed inspections in April and last summer. But on Monday, inspectors found under-heated food. And they said the restaurant failed to comply with policy when a sick employee worked a Thursday shift. It’s not clear whether the worker or managers were at fault, or whether they even knew.

“It’s even more difficult with these symptoms. You know, they usually start as stomach cramps. You know, there’s a lot of things that cause that,” said Tom Webster, a biomaterials expert at Northeastern University. “And every time you have a stomachache, should you really stay home from work?”

Whatever the reason for this case, Webster said the food preparation model at Chipotle raises the risk of spreading illness. Burritos are filled and rolled assembly-line style.

“We seem as a culture to like when people prepare food in front of us,” he said. “And, you know, I’m sorry to say, but putting up a Plexiglas window is not the safest way to keep a virus or a bacteria from contamination.”

Webster says it’s better to prepare food in a controlled area, and that companies that choose to prepare food in the open need to be extra vigilant.

The Cleveland Circle restaurant is not the only local Chipotle to be cited recently. Brookline Health Director Alan Balsam says his department recently found improperly heated food at the Commonwealth Avenue location. He says there was also no worker certified in food safety on staff, as state law requires. Balsam says the violations were not serious enough to close the restaurant immediately, but eventually he threatened to by setting a hearing.

“They did take the hearing seriously. And they have responded. And so we have given them a compliance letter, although we’ll be watching them closely,” Balsam said.

“We seem as a culture to like when people prepare food in front of us. … I’m sorry to say, but putting up a Plexiglas window is not the safest way to keep a virus or a bacteria from contamination.”

– Tom Webster, a biomaterials expert at Northeastern University

Balsam stresses that norovirus outbreaks are not uncommon here and can sicken dozens of people very quickly. But this Boston outbreak is adding to public concerns about Chipotle. In August, norovirus was blamed for nearly 100 cases at one of its California locations. In October and November, at least 52 people across nine states were sickened in an E. coli outbreak linked to the chain.

Bob Goldin, an analyst at the food industry research firm Technomic, wonders if this latest illness is exposing a systemic issue at the Denver-based company.

“They may not — and I underscore the word ‘may’ — not have as rigorous standards as necessary given their size,” Goldin said. “So I think it brings that into the spotlight.”

Goldin says so far the company seems to be responding correctly. The recent illnesses will not cripple the popular chain, he says, but they could be costly.

“I still see lines at the stores, but they’ve got a lot to manage!” he said.

Chipotle Mexican Grill spokesman Chris Arnold calls the Boston cases completely unrelated to E. coli cases linked to the company in other states. “They’re very different in every way,” he said.

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