chipotleAccording to the Washington State Department of Health, a cluster of E. coli O26 cases led to the voluntary closure of many Chipotle restaurants this week. The restaurants under investigation are linked to 19 cases of E. coli O26 illnesses in Washington. Four more cases were reported from Oregon, also associated with Chipotle restaurants. Seven of the Washington patients and two Oregon patients were hospitalized; there have been no deaths.

An investigation is underway. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is testing food samples from Chipotle restaurants at their lab in Bothell. Biological samples from people who were infected have been tested at the Public Health Laboratories (Department of Health) in Shoreline.

I had a few comments to the media today:

Chipotle has faced other recent foodborne outbreaks. A salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes sickened dozens of people in Minnesota beginning in August, according to state health officials. In California, health workers said norovirus sickened nearly 100 customers and employees at a Chipotle restaurant in Simi Valley in mid-August.

A food safety lawyer who is involved in other lawsuits against Chipotle says people should not assume a company that focuses on local and fresh ingredients is going to be immune from food safety issues.

“People shouldn’t have a false sense of security that local means safer,” said Bill Marler of Seattle law firm Marler Clark.

Marler, who built his national reputation with the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Seattle Jack in the Box restaurants, said, “Having three problems in a couple of months means that Chipotle is not paying attention to food safety like it should.”

Chipotle has marketed itself as a more healthy option to fast food, touting itself as the first major national chain to eliminate genetically-modified ingredients from most of its menu. But with the latest food safety scare, the company which has more 1,900 restaurants is in danger of doing damage to its brand, said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food safety cases.

“If I was the Chipotle CEO, I would be having my food safety team in my office yesterday asking, ‘What happened and what do we need to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Marler, who represents nearly 50 Chipotle customers who say they were sickened in the August food safety incidents in Minnesota and California. “I guarantee the cost of any change they need to make to make their food supply safer pales in comparison to the losses they have had in just last 24 hours on their stock price.”