The news for Chipotle Mexican Grill keeps getting worse as the restaurant’s food-poisoning crisis appears to be far from over. It is now reported that an E. coli outbreak linked to the chain has spread to six states, including New York and California.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a statement that the evidence suggests a common ingredient served by Chipotle in several different states was the source of the bacterial outbreak. The federal agency reported that a total of 45 people were infected, including two in Minnesota, two in California, one in New York and one in Ohio. Of those 45 people, 43 said they had eaten at a Chipotle.
Matt Wise, a CDC epidemiologist who is leading the investigation, said that the cause of the E.coli outbreak has not yet been determined but it “probably wasn’t meat.” He noted that among those who fell sick, a few were vegetarians.
But now that the E. coli outbreak and resulting investigation have expanded, the situation “has the potential to become a longer-term problem than the company would like,” noted analyst Asit Sharma.
Sharma added that, “The fact that these outbreaks don’t seem to be confined to a geographical region is harmful to the brand. Chipotle’s brand-perception problem has just gone coast to coast.”
Indeed the company’s troubles were illustrated on Wall Street. The company’s shares fell 12% on Friday to close at $536.19 - the company’s worst decline in more than three years. Before Friday, the stock was already down 11% due to investor concerns about slowing growth.
The E. coli probe initially focused on Oregon and Washington Chipotles, after dozens of people got sick after eating there. The company shut down restaurants in those areas for more than a week as authorities investigated. The company also sanitized the restaurants, hired safety consultants and threw out all unused food.
The company appeared to have gotten things under control when it announced that it reopened 43 of its Washington and Oregon restaurants.
But then, last week, the CDC said a person in Minnesota also got sick from a strain of E. coli that had the same “DNA fingerprint” as the Oregon and Washington cases. However, the CDC also said that person did not eat at Chipotle in the week before getting sick.
Chipotle released a statement on Friday that, “The source of the problem appears to have been contained during a period in late October. In response to this incident, Chipotle has taken aggressive steps to make sure its restaurants are as safe as possible. There have been no reported new cases in Washington or Oregon since Chipotle put its remediation plan into effect.”
Just two months prior to this recent E. coli scare, a salmonella outbreak infected dozens of people who had eaten at Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota. In that case, authorities determined that a bunch of tainted tomatoes was the source of the outbreak.
Moreover, over the summer, one California Chipotle saw about 80 customers get sick in a norovirus outbreak.