It seems things couldn’t get any worse for Chipotle Mexican Grill. But after connection to a series of food-borne illnesses in several states rocked the restaurant chain, it’s just been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in a criminal investigation over an outbreak of norovirus at a Simi Valley, Calif., location last August.
Nearly 200 customers and 18 employees were sickened after eating at the Chipotle location, Doug Beach, manager of the Community Services Program at the Ventura County Environmental Health Department, told NPR.
Norovirus, for anyone who’s had it, is no picnic—literally. You won’t be able to keep any food down, sometimes for days. It causes stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can be spread through contact, or through contaminated food, and recontamination can occur, even if you think you’ve just gotten rid of the virus.
The subpoena requires Chipotle to produce “a broad range of documents” surrounding the outbreak, and the chain is reportedly cooperating with the investigation led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations.
“It’s never good news for a company when federal prosecutors open a grand jury investigation into its operations, but it’s far too early to tell how sustained that interest will be here and what, if any, criminal violations will come to light,” Daniel C. Richman, professor law at Columbia University, told NPR.
But this is just the icing on the contamination cake for Chipotle. The company has been dealing with several other outbreaks that hit in August, October, November, and December of 2015, spanning from Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, and the most recent, last month at Boston College, where “scores of students” became sick after eating at a Chipotle near campus.
Some of the outbreaks, which appear to involve a rare strain of E.coli, have left some to speculate that the chain has been the victim of “corporate sabotage” in retaliation for its recent commitment to taking genetically modified ingredients off of its menu.
“I have been doing these kinds of cases for 23 years now, and I do not recall a federal investigation of any sort into a one-restaurant outbreak of any kind,” Bill Marler, of the website Food Safety News and a food-safety lawyer representing victims of Chipotle’s recent outbreaks, said in an interview. “And I don’t even recall a federal investigation of a restaurant chain that’s involved in any kind of criminal investigation,” following such a case of a food-borne-illness outbreak.
“Chipotle’s E. coli outbreaks are not random chance,” states an article published on the highly controversial website Natural News. “They are the result of the biotech industry unleashing bioterrorism attacks against the only fast food company that has publicly denounced GMOs.”
While there’s no credible evidence that the chain has been the victim of any type of “bioterrorism attacks,” it is clear that the chain faces an uphill battle in protecting its integrity, if not its entire business after these outbreaks. And with so many other fast-food restaurants now offering cleaner ingredients and healthier menus, it’s sure to be no small task.
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image: B.Positive 2014