What should be an otherwise routine and glittering week full of free burrito-giveaways and the much-hyped introduction of Queso, has taken a markedly negative turn for Chipotle. Health Officials in Loudoun County, Virginia claim that 135 customers have reportedly fallen ill after eating at one of the burrito chain’s restaurants in the Washington, DC, suburbs, in an episode similar to food-borne illness outbreaks that infected scores of customers in 2015.
The specific restaurant location in Sterling, Virginia was shuttered temporarily last week after the company learned that several customers had become ill after eating there. But what initially surfaced as 13 customers experiencing various symptoms like stomach pain, diarrhea, dehydration, and vomiting, has grown into something more severe. Now, according to health officials, 135 patrons have acknowledged symptoms, and two have tested positive for norovirus.
“Two ill patrons have tested positive for the same strain of norovirus. Based on symptoms reported and these preliminary laboratory results, the cause of the outbreak is believed to be norovirus, though the specific source of the norovirus has not yet been identified,” said Dr. David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department. The restaurant in question was reopened last Wednesday after a thorough cleansing, and officials haven’t been alerted to any further cases of illness from the location.
Chipotle leadership isn’t placing blame on the company’s food supply, but rather on inadequate health preparation at the restaurant. Speaking during a quarterly earnings call with investors on Tuesday, Mark Crumpacker, Chief Marketing and Development Officer at Chipotle, said: “We conducted a thorough investigation and it appears that someone in the restaurant leadership did not adhere to our food safety protocol. We believe someone worked while sick.”
The company’s recurring issues with food safety were addressed further during the call, with CEO Steve Ells leading the conference with opening remarks. “The food safety incidents of 2015 revealed that our food safety program needed to be more robust,” he said. “It became clear that we were focused too much on building cultures that didn’t drive the results we were expecting.”
Norovirus is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States, and causes a variety of symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 Americans contract the bug every year. Chipotle amended much of the damage from its calamitous 2015 by offering up free food and instituting new food safety measures.