A norovirus outbreak at Chipotle has prompted a federal investigation, in order to determine if company executives were aware of the contamination before the first victims were reported.
A grand-jury subpoena concerning this criminal inquest was received by officials of the previously flourishing Mexican restaurant chain back in December, and this information finally surfaced on Wednesday, January 6.
Apparently, the investigation refers to a number of 234 norovirus infections which were reported in August 2015, among 17 Chipotle Mexican Grill employees and 217 customers who had visited one of the chain’s establishments, located in Simi Valley, California.
It’s actually quite surprising that a full-blown criminal probe, led by FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations and by the US Attorney Office in California, has been launched after just one eatery experienced an outbreak.
The decision seems over the top especially when taking into account that the food-borne illness caused by norovirus is actually the most frequently encountered type of acute gastroenteritis, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The highly contagious infection, which manifests itself through diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting, shouldn’t have caught the attention of federal authorities, and under normal circumstances the outbreak should’ve been handled by local regulators instead.
As a result, law experts now believe that Chipotle is actually being accused of having broken rules specified in USDA’s Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
For instance, according to Steve Kluting, regional director at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., one of the world’s leading risk management and insurance brokerage companies, feds probably suspect that the contamination was either caused by a malevolent third-party, or triggered by much more widespread issues across the entire supply chain.
Reports made by inspectors at the Ventura County Environmental Health Division, who were in charge with assessing safety standards at various eateries including Chipotle’s Simi Valley restaurant, suggest another possible reason for this federal probe.
According to Doug Beach, the agency’s representative, executives were aware of the fact that one of their staff members had been suffering from gastroenteritis ever since August 18, 2015. However, they kept the restaurant open for 2 more days, doing business as before.
On August 20 they eventually closed the establishment and carried out extensive cleaning and sanitation, and only reported the outbreak the following day, when new personnel was placed at the serving counter.
This isn’t actually the first crisis that has marred Chipotle Mexican Grill, a total of 500 individuals having experienced health issues in recent months after choosing this restaurant chain.
For instance, back in July there was a limited E.coli contamination linked to Chipotle in Seattle and in August there were 64 salmonella cases in Minnesota.
From October until November a much more severe E.coli outbreak affected 9 states, sickening 53 customers and causing 43 establishments across Oregon and Washington to be temporarily closed.
More recently, in December there were 5 other E. Coli infections in 3 other states, and around 140 Boston College students caught norovirus after frequenting a Chipotle restaurant.
While the fast food company has promised that it would test its products more thoroughly and impose much stricter safety standards for all its employees, in order to ensure that no such outbreaks would occur in the future, many customers appear to have already lost their faith in this once-popular business.
Sales reported following 2015’s 4th quarter have declined by around 14.6%, being much lower than anticipated. Also, the company’s stock has also experienced a dramatic downturn, shares dropping from around $700 in July, to $433 at present day.
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