Chipotle will close all of its locations for a few hours on Feb. 8 for a company-wide meeting. On the agenda: food safety changes.
The company has been plagued by a series of norovirus and E. coli outbreaks that sickened dozens and drove down sales. An investigation has not yet identified what specific food is linked to the illness.
The outbreak garnered significant attention, in part because of the popularity of Chipotle, which has more than 1,500 locations worldwide. But the cases represent a drop in the bucket in the number of annual food-borne illnesses. In December, scores of students fell ill at a Chipotle restaurant in Boston after contracting what health officials described as norovirus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks both outbreaks like those at Chipotle and isolated occurrences, estimates that 48 million people contract food-borne diseases each year. Only a small number of those cases are considered actual outbreaks — defined as two or more people getting sick from the same source.
Will investigators be able to determine what caused the Chipotle outbreak? Hard to say. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington public health group that analyzed the CDC records, released a report in November that found only 40 percent of such cases are ever solved.
Here are some other surprising facts about food-borne disease outbreaks:
You are safer in a fast-food restaurant than at a swanky restaurant
CDC statistics show that from 1998 to 2014, there were 1,969 outbreaks in “sit-down” restaurants, causing 26,350 illnesses, 1,206 hospitalizations, and eight deaths. By comparison, fast-food restaurants were the source of only 365 outbreaks, 5,624 illnesses, 533 hospitalizations, and three deaths.
David Plunkett, a senior food safety attorney with CSPI and co-author of the report released last week, said standardization at fast-food restaurants helps make them safer. “You can’t walk into a McDonald’s and say, ‘I’d like my hamburger rare,’” Plunkett explained. “’You should be less suspicious of the meat and more suspicious of the things that are going to be on the food raw, such as lettuce or a salad-type option.”
The herd in your hamburger
There can be as many as 100 or more beef cattle parts combined into one hamburger and parts from dozens of chickens in one patty. The odds of one of them being contaminated increase with the numbers. And it only takes one to cause an illness. This doesn’t affect the risk of diseases like salmonella and campylobacter, more often associated with raw or undercooked food.
Fresh doesn’t mean healthy
According to CSPI’s report, which analyzed CDC data from 2004 to 2013, cilantro, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and peppers, often eaten raw, resulted in 629 outbreaks and almost 20,000 illnesses. On a pound-for-pound basis, however, fresh produce is safer than many other foods, the report noted.
“You are twice as likely to get sick from eating a serving of chicken as from eating a serving of vegetables,” Plunkett said. The group also criticized the current food safety surveillance system, which is improving, but slowly. CSPI and other health groups have called for more funding of food safety surveillance activities across several federal agencies.
You are likely to have already had food poisoning
Most cases never get reported. That “stomach bug” you thought you had was likely the result of a food-borne pathogen. There are more than 250 pathogens capable of making you sick.
Nursing home residents are vulnerable
According to the CDC, there were 192 outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities from 1998 to 2014. Taken together, they caused 49 deaths — a higher ratio than outbreaks tied to grocery stores or restaurants.
Cheese has clout
The Food and Drug Administration recently adopted a stricter standard for raw milk cheese, basically lowering the amount of non-toxigenic E. coli that is permitted.
Last week, Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and about 20 other lawmakers wrote the FDA to express their concern about the economic impact on their states’ raw milk cheese industry. “Such a drastic step,” they said, “would only be justified were these cheeses presenting a demonstrable public health risk, which, to date, we have not seen evidence of.”
This story was updated to reflect the news that Chipotle was closing briefly on Feb. 8, 2016.