Burrito lovers, you can leave home again: The two E. coli outbreaks that plagued Chipotle Mexican Grill starting in October are finally over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has just closed the book on its investigation into the two outbreaks, which sickened at least 60 people nationwide—55 in the initial outbreak, and five in the second, smaller one—it announced on its website Monday. The dangers now “appear to be over,” reads the report. How comforting.
The bad news? Although the CDC rigorously tested Chipotle’s menu items, reviewed its records, and interviewed dozens of nauseated customers, the source of the sicknesses remains a mystery. The CDC “was unable to identify a single food item or ingredient that could explain either outbreak,” it admitted on its website. (Investigators did say that the two outbreaks likely shared the same culprit, so that’s something.) Something to discuss during the mandatory and much-needed shutdown day the chain has instituted for Feb. 8, perhaps?
All told, the beleaguered chain has borne six significant outbreaks in the past six months, including bouts of norovirus, E. coli, and salmonella. Some of the main changes Chipotle has implemented in response “include moving the chopping of tomatoes and lettuce to a centralized location, and blanching onions to kill germs before they're chopped,” reports CNBC. That’s good, because the ingredients most likely to cause foodborne illness are fresh produce, as I explained last month. In the only outbreak with a known culprit—an outbreak of salmonella that spanned 22 stores in Minnesota—the sicknesses were traced back to contaminated tomatoes.
So how is Chipotle faring now? Well, it’s definitely getting pummeled with lawsuits; at least nine people have sued so far, and plenty more are pending, reports the Chicago Tribune. But it’s also doing a little dance, ‘cause stocks are up 4 percent Monday! Big-burrito high five.
While some burrito lovers have fled to other chains, one group has remained by Chipotle’s side throughout the debacle: the youth. "Young adults represent the largest share of Chipotle's overall traffic," as Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group, which tracks consumer awareness about food safety outbreaks, tells CNBC. "Their willingness to overlook any food safety concerns to eat at Chipotle could be a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness." Or, I’ll hazard, an extreme aversion to traveling more than 0.1 miles from their college campus.
To paraphrase a memorable Washington Post article on the devoted cult of Chipotle: A little vom can’t stop the nom.