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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

435 Chipotle Customers with Norovirus, 6 Sick with Hepatitis A, but Record Profits, what Gives?

The number of people who reported that they became sick with norovirus after eating at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Kent has grown to about 435.  The restaurant at 429 E. Main St. reopened Saturday, after a voluntary shutdown Friday. Workers replaced the food and sanitized equipment with a bleach solution. Chipotle’s spokesperson was quoted in the Akron Beacon-Journal:

”Food safety is, and always has been, our highest priority.”

However, a Hepatitis A outbreak was brewing on the California Coast, San Diego TV reports “6 Cases of Hepatitis A Linked to La Mesa Chipotle.” Yet another spokesperson was quoted as saying:

“The health and safety of our customers and employees is our highest priority,… We have done and will continue to do everything we can to assist the health department in identifying the cause of this illness.”

One would think they were having a bad week. Perhaps, but today Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. reported a 38.9 percent jump in quarterly profits and a 29.3 percent rise in revenue over the same period a year earlier, largely fueled by the burrito chain’s rapid expansion.

Well, I guess the good news is that they have the money to pay the victims and to upgrade their food safety program?  What is interesting about both of these viruses is that they seem to have been transmitted via ill employees.  One must wonder about both the company’s hand washing policy and sick leave policy.

Noroviruses
are estimated to cause 23 million cases of acute gastroenteritis (commonly called the "stomach flu") in the U.S. each year, and are the leading cause of gastroenteritis. Of viruses, only the common cold is reported more often than viral gastroenteritis (norovirus). Noroviruses may cause more outbreaks of foodborne illness than all bacteria and parasites. They can cause extended outbreaks because of their high infectivity, persistence in the environment, resistance to common disinfectants, and difficulty in controlling their transmission through routine sanitary measures.

The norovirus is transmitted primarily through the fecal-oral route and fewer than 100 norovirus particles are said to be needed to cause infection.  Transmission occurs either person-to-person or through contamination of food or water. Transmission can occur by touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then placing that hand in your mouth; having direct contact with another person who is infected and showing symptoms; sharing foods or eating utensils with someone who is ill; exposure to aerosolized vomit; and consuming food contaminated by an infected food handler.

Hepatitis A
is the only common vaccine-preventable foodborne disease in the United States (Fiore, 2004). It is one of five human hepatitis viruses that primarily infect the human liver and cause human illness. Unlike hepatitis B and C, hepatitis A doesn’t develop into chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis which are both potentially fatal conditions (Mayo Clinic, 2006); however, hepatitis A infection can still lead to acute liver failure and death. Viral hepatitis is a major public health concern in the United States, and a source of significant morbidity and mortality. Each year, approximately 30 – 50,000 cases of hepatitis A occur in the United States. Direct and indirect costs of these illnesses exceed $300 million, including wage loss and medical expenses. Adults who become ill miss an average of 27 work days per illness. Eleven to 12 percent of persons infected are hospitalized, and 100 people die as a result of acute liver failure annually in the United States due to hepatitis A (CDC, 2007). The unfortunate aspect of these statistics is that with 21st Century medicine, hepatitis A is totally preventable and cases—especially outbreaks relegated to food consumption—need not occur.

Hepatitis A is a communicable (or contagious) disease that spreads from person to person. It is transmitted by the “fecal – oral route,” generally from person-to-person, or via contaminated food or water. Outbreaks associated with food have been increasingly implicated as a significant source of hepatitis A infection. Such “outbreaks are usually associated with contamination of food during preparation by an HAV-infected food handler.” (CDC, 2007; Francis & Maynard, 1983).