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Chipotle’s E. Coli Outbreak Is Stumping Scientists and Fueling Conspiracies

Over 500 people have reported falling ill in a dozen states, thanks to food they ate at a Chipotle restaurant. The weird thing is, no one can figure out exactly what the problem is in some of the outbreaks.

by Alex Swerdloff
Jan 8 2016, 11:00pm

Photo via Flickr user tales of a wandering youkai

We all know that Chipotle—America's favorite "it's not so bad for you" fast food chain, until recently—is having a hard time of it. To say the least.

In the last half of 2015, more than 500 people have reported falling ill in a dozen states, thanks to food they ate at a Chipotle restaurant. In addition to several outbreaks of E. coli, norovirus and salmonella poisoning have also brought Chipotle customers and employees to their knees. Literally.

The weird thing is, no one can figure out exactly what the problem is in some of the outbreaks.

To wit: 53 people fell ill in October of E. coli poisoning linked to various Chipotle outlets. State and local health officials have tried unsuccessfully to find the exact source. Chipotle has done hundreds of internal tests on its food and surfaces.

READ: Chipotle's Food Safety Nightmare Has Led It to Drop Locally Sourced Produce

What the hell?

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says that the tests performed so far have been so extensive and rigorous that if the source of the problem were capable of being found, it would have been by now.

Some people are even resorting to conspiracy theories. Has a competitor of Chipotle been targeting the chain?

The Centers for Disease Control says everyone should chill. Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC, told Business Insider, "When a food is identified as the source of an outbreak, up to 50 percent of the time a specific food item is not pinpointed as the cause. What is making this particular outbreak difficult to pinpoint is you have lots of different food items that are going into the product that consumers are buying."

Part of the problem is that when people eat at Chipotle, they customize their meals. Some add lettuce, others add guac. You know the routine. Schaffner says it becomes harder to determine which of those ingredients was contaminated when people pick and choose. "The more the menu is standardized—where everybody eats the same stuff—the more difficult it becomes to identify" what is making people sick, he said.

Chipotle has been subpoenaed as part of a federal criminal investigation into one of the norovirus outbreaks linked to a restaurant in Simi Valley, California. This too has got people talking—did someone intentionally cause the problem at the various Chipotles? A Washington, D.C. lawyer, Mark Mansour, says that criminal investigations into foodborne-illness outbreaks are uncommon, and they typically indicate some suspicion of intent behind the food contamination. No evidence of this has been revealed to the public yet, though.

In addition to that, Chipotle's stock price has been falling, which has led to a class-action lawsuit by shareholders who allege that the chain misled them about its food safety controls.

"The fact that Chipotle has an outbreak is not in and of itself unusual, but there are some unusual features," Schaffner said. "Even the E. colis are different and then they had this norovirus outbreak. One of the questions that comes up immediately is: Is this a coincidence or is this a systematic problem of food-handling distribution at Chipotle?"

So maybe it's not a conspiracy or a nefarious plot. Maybe Chipotle just has a food-handling problem, one that's gotten the once-favored chain into a lot of deep water.