Chipotle Reopens Most NW Stores After E. Coli Outbreak

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 12, 2015 2 a.m.
Patrons wait in line at Chipotle in Portland's Lloyd District Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in the two states at the end of October amid an investigation into an E. coli outbreak.

Patrons wait in line at Chipotle in Portland's Lloyd District Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in the two states at the end of October amid an investigation into an E. coli outbreak.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

A steady line of people paraded into the Chipotle near Portland’s Lloyd Center during lunchtime, just hours after the restaurant had reopened for the first time since Oct. 30.

The company closed 43 locations late last month after health officials linked them to an outbreak of E. coli.

Among the patrons was Josh Pickett, who sat on a high stool gazing out the window, cupping a half eaten carnitas burrito with both hands. He said he heard about the E. coli outbreak that lead to the restaurant chain's closure in Oregon and Washington.

"Probably no better time to come back with everything clean," he said. "I'm sure their processes are much more regulated now, so I feel completely fine about the food and about the quality and everything."

Pickett said he was impressed by how Chipotle dealt with the E. coli outbreak.

"The response Chipotle took of closing all their stores and making sure that there was no additional contamination was the right response to take," he said.

Just a few seats down from Pickett, Ken Merscreau worked his way through a veggie bowl. He said he's a big fan of the company's business model and wanted to be there during their first day they reopened.

"It's a great concept, the healthy food and to try and use organic products and local farm products and things like that, so I'm all for them and back out here to support them," he said.

In a statement, Chipotle said 30 of the 43 restaurants it temporarily closed have reopened. The rest are scheduled to open as soon as they get resupplied with new food.

Company founder and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized again for those affected by the E. coli outbreak. And he said the company has been cooperating with public health officials to find the cause and adopt enhanced safety measures.

"We have redoubled our efforts to enhance our food safety practices in order to ensure that our food is as safe as it can be," Ells said in a statement.

In addition to sanitizing the closed restaurants and replacing all the food, Chipotle said it is now testing produce, meat and dairy before any restocking. The company said it also plans to expand new food safety measures and conduct audits in all 2000 of its stores.

Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington State's Medical Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases, said Chipotle has made changes to minimize their risk going forward.

"These things that they're offering – to be testing before they send the produce out, add the additional rinse step – I think these are all good things that give me some confidence that they're minimizing their risk," he said.

So far, none of the samples taken by the federal Food and Drug Administration, Chipotle, or state public health agencies have found any trace of E. coli. That's pretty common. Despite not finding any bacteria, public health officials say there's scientific evidence linking the outbreak to Chipotle.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food lawyer, said so far he's representing 31 families associated with the Chioptle E. coli outbreak and filed two lawsuits against the company in federal district court.

"I'd like to know why Chipotle is doing all these things now and why they didn't do them earlier to prevent the outbreak from actually happening to begin with," he said.

Back at the Chipotle restaurant near Lloyd Center, not everyone was aware about the E. coli outbreak.

You Ping stopped while carrying her burrito bowl to a nearby table.

"No, I didn't hear about it," she said. "I just got back from outside the country so I haven't kept up with will all the updates yet."

More updates are expected as health officials continue their investigation into the outbreak with the hope of finding the source of the E. coli.