Chipotle Faces Another Foodborne Illness Outbreak, This Time In Boston | KERA News

Chipotle Faces Another Foodborne Illness Outbreak, This Time In Boston

Dec 9, 2015
Originally published on December 9, 2015 6:58 pm

Is it those holiday parties filled with people eating together? We're not sure, but we keep hearing about new clusters of people getting poisoned by their meals.

The latest outbreak sickened at least 120 people in Boston, most of them students at Boston College.

This included eight members of the college's basketball team. The team is scheduled to play Providence this evening, and as of this morning, it's unclear whether the game will happen.

Most of the sick students reported eating at a nearby Chipotle Mexican Grill. (The college updated the number of students sickened from 80 to 120 students at 12:26 p.m. on Wednesday.)

This provoked suspicions of a link to an earlier outbreak of E. coli poisoning in the Pacific Northwest traced to Chipotle restaurants there.

It appears, however, that the two outbreaks are unrelated. According to preliminary tests, the Boston College students were sickened by another disease-causing organism, called norovirus.

Norovirus is sometimes overlooked, because it is less likely to kill you than disease-causing forms of E. Coli or salmonella. But it is by far the most common source of foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chipotle has closed the restaurant near Boston College while the investigation continues. Government inspectors cited the company for allowing an employee to work there while ill last week, although the illness was not specified. Norovirus is highly contagious and is generally spread from person to person. (For more on what it's like when this nasty bug strikes, read Emily Sohn's essay over at Shots.)

On the other side of the country, meanwhile, prominent food safety lawyer Bill Marler tells us by email that an outbreak of foodborne illness has dampened spirits in his own office building. Last week, 200 people complained that they didn't feel well after a catered event in that building. Three went to the hospital. They were infected with norovirus.

Today, all the restaurants in that building are closed, including a Starbucks. "People look a bit uncomfortable on crowded elevators," Marler writes.

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It has not been a great couple of months for Chipotle Mexican Grill. First there was an outbreak of E. coli in the Pacific Northwest. Now the fast food chain has been linked to more than a hundred cases of food poisoning in Boston. But the two outbreaks appear to come from very different sources. NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: On Sunday night, the starting center on Boston College's basketball team couldn't start. He was sick. By halftime, another player was in the locker room throwing up. The next day, six more basketball players were sick, and dozens of students were in the college's health clinic. All of them had recently eaten at a nearby Chipotle.

Some people thought this might be of part of another larger outbreak that started more than a month ago affecting people that ate at Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. But tests show the Boston College outbreak is different. The illnesses in Oregon and Washington were caused by a deadly kind of E. coli bacteria. The students at Boston College picked up something called norovirus.

ARON HALL: Norovirus is actually the No. 1 cause of foodborne illness.

CHARLES: This is Aron Hall, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I reached him on his cell phone at a scientific meeting about norovirus outbreaks.

HALL: Out of all domestically acquired foodborne illness, norovirus is responsible for an estimated 58 percent.

CHARLES: So more than everything else combined.

HALL: That's correct.

CHARLES: It makes headlines when it shuts down the occasional cruise ship, but otherwise, it doesn't get as much attention as disease-causing E. coli and salmonella, probably because it isn't as life-threatening.

HALL: Most people that get norovirus infection have a relatively mild illness. They'll be sick for about one to three days.

CHARLES: Norovirus is different from E. coli and salmonella in another way, too. Those bacteria live in animals, and it's easy for them to contaminate raw beef or poultry or fresh produce and then infect people. So in the case of the E. coli outbreak, investigators are looking for contaminated ingredients. Norovirus really only lives in people. Food is just one way that it hitches a ride from one infected person to another.

HALL: Most common scenario is an infected food worker who had bare-hand contact with food that are ready to eat.

CHARLES: Health inspectors in Boston visited the Chipotle location near Boston College on Monday and cited it for allowing a sick employee to work last Thursday. The officials did not say what sort of illness the employee had. As for the basketball team, it's scheduled to play Providence this evening with any players who can make it. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.