CDC defends reporting of E. coli outbreaks linked to Chipotle

CHICAGO The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pushed back against complaints from Chipotle Mexican Grill that the health agency misinformed the public with its reporting of certain E. coli cases linked to the burrito chain.

The federal regulators’ defense of its actions comes as the burrito chain has revamped its food safety strategy to recover from a string of 2015 food safety lapses that have scared away customers and battered the company’s formerly high-flying shares.

The CDC, in a letter to a lawyer representing Chipotle, said it believes its website updates on the outbreaks served to protect and inform the public.

The CDC’s response, which was posted online this week and dated April 15, said its updates provided people who may have become sick after eating at Chipotle restaurants with information they might have needed to be diagnosed and treated for E. coli 026, a potentially serious illness.

In a letter to the CDC dated Dec. 21, Chipotle attorney Bryant Messner said that some of the agency’s updates were confusing and unclear and that their release “only acts to create public panic.”

That letter followed Chipotle official Mark Crumpacker’s description of the CDC’s handling of the information as “unusual and even unorthodox” at an investor conference on Dec. 8.

Crumpacker, the company’s chief creative and development officer, told attendees at that event that the CDC’s updates on the O26 investigation led to a drumbeat of news stories that made it appear illness was spreading when it was not.

The CDC said on Feb. 1 that two E.coli outbreaks linked to Chipotle, which affected 60 people across 14 states, appeared to be over.

Chipotle, which is revamping its food safety procedures and giving away millions of free burritos in an effort to win back diners, last month posted the first quarterly loss in its history. Its stock, which hit an all-time high of almost $750 in August, was trading at around $434 on Friday.

The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses kill 3,000 people and sicken 48 million each year in the United States.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Frances Kerry)

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