Chipotle, the Government and You
December 10, 2015
The Chipotle restaurant chain’s multistate bacterial foodborne outbreak of enterotoxic E. coli, infecting over 50 people in nine states (Washington, Oregon, California, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Illinois, and Maryland), appears to have been stopped. All cases seem to have occurred between October 13 and November 10, with no new cases since that time. Now, the restaurant chain (with over 1500 restaurants) is battling a much more common virus and apparently a healthy wallop of bad luck or karma as one of their restaurants in Boston is now linked to a large Norovirus outbreak. At a time when there is a constant message about a need to down-size government, the swift resolution of the E.coli outbreak demonstrates a key role of government, is a reminder of one of the ways it does keep us safe.
Chipotle has been boastful of their emphasis on high-quality ingredients. Their motto is “Food with Integrity” and they have angered Big-Ag as they have contrasted their purity of approach against the methods used by many in the food industry. Their animated short film from a few years ago confronted the industry about their mishandling of animals and their unnatural food production – in contrast to Chipotle. Yet, now they are struggling to reclaim their reputation as one of the ingredients they used (not yet determined) had been contaminated with this toxic strain of E. coli.
You may ask why a foodborne outbreak would be evidence of the government keeping us safe. The world will never be sterile, and even with the best food handling practices, microscopic contamination can occur. This outbreak was broken with amazing speed thanks to a network of local health departments using ongoing surveillance and from coordination between the CDC and the FDA. Without this system, cases would multiply without notice. Only government can coordinate food regulations, food establishment inspections, surveillance systems, laboratory support, and epidemiologic investigations.