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Chipotle-linked E. Coli outbreak appears to be over, CDC says

By Samantha Bomkamp • Updated Feb 2, 2016 at 11:55 AM

The E. coli outbreak tied to Chipotle restaurants that sickened hundreds appears to be over, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.

The most recent illness linked to Chipotle that was reported to the CDC was Dec. 1. Salmonella and norovirus outbreaks were also tied to its restaurants.

In total, 60 people in 14 states were sickened by E. coli linked to the Denver-based burrito chain, the result of two different strains of the bacteria. Most cases were concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. Twenty-two people were hospitalized, but there were no reported deaths.

The CDC believes a common Chipotle menu item or ingredient caused the outbreak, but it still doesn’t know which one. Most of those who became ill ate the same food items at Chipotle, the CDC said, but because of the way the menu is designed — with meat and vegetables that can be mixed and matched in many different forms — it can be difficult to pin down the source of an outbreak.

Chipotle is scheduled to report fourth-quarter earnings Tuesday. Sales have tumbled in the months since the outbreaks were first discovered, but teens and young adults have actually increased their visits to the burrito chain, a study by research firm NPD Group found.

Chipotle said its sales at established stores sank 30 percent in December. NPD estimates that total visits fell about 5 percent in the fourth quarter, when most of the outbreaks occurred, compared with a 19 percent traffic gain in the same quarter a year ago.

Teens and young adults, however, increased their Chipotle visits by double digits last year, according to NPD research. Young adults represent the biggest segment of Chipotle’s total customers.

“Their willingness to overlook any food safety concerns to eat at Chipotle could be a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness,” NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs said.

Other customers appear to have taken their business mostly to McDonald’s and Burger King, according to an NPD analysis. Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s also cashed in on the crisis, NPD found.

The food safety scandal has led the Chipotle chain to revamp food safety policies, including implementing DNA testing on all ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants.

Chipotle will close all restaurants for several hours midday Feb. 8 for a companywide meeting. The company said it will share information about what it believes caused the outbreaks and what it’s doing to prevent more, and will thank workers for implementing new food safety procedures.


©2016 Chicago Tribune

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